Arts: The opera that came in from the cold

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GIAN CARLO Menotti's operas have generally had a poor press. Sentimentality, triteness and banality are the accusations, but in opera those are not invariably drawbacks. And, indeed, Menotti has had plentiful success in the United States. Thanks to annual Christmas television broadcasts, Amahl and the Night Visitors has had a larger audience than any other opera, ever. In Britain, his works remain rarities.

Good for Opera Holland Park, then, to stage Simon Callow's production of The Consul, a strange Cold War parable first performed in 1950. It is set in an unnamed European country where John Sorel is part of the resistance to a tyrannical regime. Forced into hiding, he leaves his wife Magda, Mother and baby to deal with frequent visits from the Secret Police Agent. In order to join John, Magda tries to obtain a visa, but the Secretary (half the characters are nameless) obstructs all attempts to reach the Consul, who is never seen or heard.

It's just what the CIA might have ordered, but the politics of the piece are all a bit blurred, not least by misplaced attempts at levity in the form of the Magician, whose conjuring routines include mass hypnosis. Yet Menotti is a skilful dramatist (he writes his own librettos), and there is a palpable sense of the grinding futility that drives Magda to suicide.

Although the vocal writing too often resembles barely sung speech, Menotti knows when to bring in the big tune or the sinister dissonance, and Magda's big Act Two aria is a literal showstopper.

Sadly, Callow's low-budget production falls short of the tight ensemble playing the piece needs. Christopher Woods's revolving set constricts movement, and the singers are forever skirting gingerly round the props. Nevertheless, there are winning performances from Naomi Harvey, whose Magda hits the right note of resigned melancholy; from Alison Kettlewell as the brittle Secretary; and from Anne Collins as the Mother.

Although the open-air acoustic makes balance between voices and orchestra problematic, Tom Higgins conducts with a good sense of when to hold tight and when to let things rip. Problems notwithstanding, it is a welcome chance to see an opera that will never be a repertoire piece.

This year's Trinity College Opera end-of-term show at the Bloomsbury Theatre presented Vanessa by Menotti's lifelong companion, Samuel Barber. Another Menotti libretto takes us to another unnamed European country, where Vanessa has spent 20 years mourning the loss of love.

Trinity's ambition is admirable, but this time the college may have bitten off more than the students could chew. Barber wrote for big, big voices; here the singers struggled to get the better of his orchestra, and, with no voices quite able to make the emotions real, the characters lacked gravitas. But, even with singers such as Steber, Resnik and Gedda (who all appeared in the 1958 New York Met premiere), it is hard to imagine Vanessa as anything other than overheated.

Nick Kimberley

`The Consul' is at Holland Park Theatre London W8 (0171-602 7856), 8pm tonight until 31 July