The tiny Agnes de Mille Theater, hidden between the Schools of Dance and Drama on the campus of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts has seen its share of major productions – from the ambitious setting of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the late 1970s to the made-for-television Britten opera, Owen Wingrave. Although no longer pristine, the venerable theater has wonderful sight lines, admirable acoustics and wonder of wonders, an ample orchestra pit situated under the stage. That pit alone makes the hall invaluable to the stage life of the Triad. One only hopes that the next new hall to be built in the Triad, the Tanger Center for the Performing Arts (to open in Greensboro in 2016), will include a spacious pit for opera and ballet performances.

Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was a major artistic force in the 20th century – a composer of notable operas and the founder of two major festivals, one in Spoleto, Italy and the other in Charleston, SC. Menotti wrote his own libretti and often staged his operas himself. The Consul, dating from 1950, opened not in an opera house but in a Broadway Theater, fulfilling a remarkable run of eight months and winning a Pulitzer prize and a NY Drama Critics Prize.

The consul himself never appears on stage except as a shadow in a doorway, but he is the antagonist throughout the opera. Indeed, for a variety of different reasons, characters in the story apply to the consul for a visa to enter an adjacent country, apparently less despotic than where they are. But every applicant’s name is reduced to a number, every number to a case requiring papers, documents, certificates, permits and photos, signed and dated, in triplicate, and then filed until the consul, “a very busy man,” has time to deal with it. As such, The Consul is an indictment of bureaucracy and its dehumanizing effects.

The theme of the opera is the despair of the various visa applicants as the seriousness of their plights grows with the passage of time – babies die, husbands sicken, all while the applicants wait. “Waiting turns a heart into a clock,” complains a mother. The action all takes place either in the antechamber of the consulate with its formica desk and fluorescent lights or in the drab apartment No. 5 – a study in grey, dull green and ochre – a kitchen, a dining table and an armchair. This is the home of John Sorel, freedom-fighter, his wife Magda, their sickly new-borne son and John’s aging mother. Everything is exposed to the examination of the audience (there is no curtain for this performance) and scene changes are accompanied by orchestral interludes while walls move mysteriously and plain-clothes men walk off with furniture and accessories.

The central character of the plot is Magda Sorel (Jaclyn Surso, soprano), whose fugitive husband John awaits her across the border. Surso has a full rich voice – more than equal to the demands of the role. She was magnificent in the aria which started “So my lips say goodbye” which becomes a duet when the heroic baritone voice of Joshua Conyers, her hunted husband, joins her. Her mother-in-law, John’s mother, sung by contralto Kate Sorrells, joins them to make this passionate lament-filled trio a highlight of the evening.

Menotti has a lyrical gift that is quite captivating. His Act II Lullaby, sung to the infant son by Mother, has become a classic in the contemporary American opera repertory. Ms. Sorrells was a touching grandmother and a lovely singer.

Menotti often starts with the aria, recitative, and ensembles that one finds in traditional operas, but seems to have invented a hybrid that starts out as a solo and finishes as a powerful dramatic ensemble. The trio from Act I is one example, and another is the quintet which ends the first act, having started as a soliloquy.

Patrick Scully has a deep insinuating bass voice which made him the perfect secret police agent attempting to find John Sorel, dead or alive!

A different set of characters (joined by Magda Sorel) inhabits the three scenes which take place inside the consulate, starting with the neat and systematic consular secretary, orderly and thoroughly despicable, but perfectly sung and acted by mezzo-soprano Lindsay Mecher. Nika Magadoff, sung by tenor, Simon Petersson, is a magician seeking to play to a new audience in another country. In addition to an impressive voice, Petersson juggles well, dances well and drew applause from the audience for his magic tricks. Fortunately for us, Menotti included this comic relief, because otherwise, the mood would have been unending despair!

This is a difficult score for the orchestra. But the students inhabiting the pit seemed to master it and even revel in some of the orchestral dissonances and colors. Crisp brass and woodwind staccatos were apparent from the start. Lyrical clarinet and English horn solos and treacherous string passages were negotiated effectively. James Allbritten‘s direction was impressive if one can judge by the results!

Excellent singing was delivered by Matthew Arnold, Megan Cleaveland, Lurline Richardson, Alden Pridgen, all still in line awaiting their visas, as well as freedom-fighter Kelly De Lameter. Some astounding lighting effects accompany the closing scenes, thanks to Lighting Designer Noah Trimner. Jonathan Dahm Robertson designed the scenes and is responsible, along with Stage Director Steven LaCosse for the awesome set changes.

The Consul is repeated in the same theater on Friday, April 24 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, April 26 at 2 pm.