Magazine article The Spectator

Menotti Exposed

Magazine article The Spectator

Menotti Exposed

Article excerpt

How bad is Menotti, and The Consul in particular? Not that the question is of great interest in itself, but the production this week in Holland Park, which is in most respects excellent, gets it into focus, and helps one to see what kind of phenomenon Menotti's work represents, and therefore what the significance of his popularity was. Not that it is entirely safe to use the past tense about it. There have been two recordings of The Consul in the last two years, and it is just coming up to its half century, so a revival is on the cards. Somehow it seems unlikely. There is a transparency about the idiom; Menotti, cunning craftsman though he was, wasn't skilful enough to disguise the expertise with which he was pressing the right buttons. So now they are evidently the wrong ones, and everyone can congratulate themselves on the readiness with which they can see through him.

The Consul deals with a serious theme, and makes no bones about it. It takes place in an unnamed totalitarian country, involves a freedom fighter, John Sorel, who is shot by secret police, and his family, his wife Magda being the leading figure in the opera. His mother is called The Mother, just as there is also The Secret Police Agent, The Secretary, The Magician. The use of these descriptions instead of names is presumably intended to evoke a vaguely Kafkaesque quality, and/or a sense of archetypes. Fast forward to Glyndebourne 1998 (and for that matter two weeks' time) and you get Jonathan Dove's Flight, with a collection of characters waiting for a delayed journey, and called Refugee, Controller, Older Woman, as well as Bill and Tina. Metaphors for our time: airport lounges, consulate waiting-rooms. The Consul is far more solemn in tone than Flight, which combines a long face with periodic smirks about gender bending, and of course yesterday's cliches are far easier to spot than today's. Menotti was making a bid for the popular market, too. The show ran for 269 performances in New York, as well as being given at La Scala in 1951; there was talk of Callas singing Magda. Its instant success was surely a reason for the rapidity with which critics turned against it. Whether most of them would today, with such alacrity, is an interesting speculation.

In one way Menotti, who so obviously comes from the verismo tradition, with an especial debt to the Puccini of Tosca, plays his hand more craftily than its longer-lasting members. …

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