The Secret Consul, Limehouse Town Hall

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The Independent Culture

‘A guerrilla opera staged at a secret location’ said the Wedding Collective’s handbill, and the location turned out to be Limehouse Town Hall, once home to the labour-history museum, now inhabited by artists.

Battered suitcases littered the entrance, which was decorated with Russian newspapers and passport photographs, and there was an interesting buzz with people waiting and waiting, some of whom were punters, while others – one couldn’t tell who – were apparently members of the chorus; three secretaries stalked through the crowd, sticking barcodes on people’s jackets. ‘He’s very busy,’ they kept saying. ‘He may issue no papers today.’

Welcome to the world of The Consul, unseen evil genius of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera of that name, with ‘secret’ added to heighten the melodrama. A little quartet struck up – violin, cello, clarinet, keyboard – and a young man burst into song and did a conjuring trick: very classy, but for no apparent reason. Then we were herded into the council chamber upstairs.

The essence of Menotti’s once-popular opera – in 1950 he was still daring to write tunes – consists of Magda Sorel’s Kakfkaesque quest to save her husband from the secret police; she fails, her baby dies, and she commits suicide. Director Stephen Tiller and music director Andrew Charity – responsible for last year’s Olivier-winning ‘Boheme’ – have given the whole thing a queasily contemporary slant, evoking with interrogations and torturings a world of stateless beings and their tormentors.

On the minus side, this hour of music-drama was intermittently impenetrable, partly thanks to foggy direction, partly because some singers had poor diction, and partly because we only got two-fifths of the original work. One needs more from a libretto than generalised paranoia.

Yet the musicians brought out all the discreet menace of Menotti’s score, and the mixed cast of professionals and amateurs created a burningly intense atmosphere: this was real theatre, well-suited to its mysteriously seedy setting. When Magda loses her child, a young chorus member (Ayten Soylu) leads her away from its corpse with a Turkish lament of haunting peasant plangency; Magda herself is sung by the Ukrainian soprano Lesya Aleksyeyeva, who brings to the role dramatic conviction, vocal artistry, and at one point a lovely Ukrainian folk-song. This intriguingly homespun show runs to July 16, and is definitely worth catching.