“Papers! Papers!Papers!” sings the protagonist, Magda Sorel, in her great protest against heartless officialdom and oppression, on a stage littered with discarded queue tickets and forms. Premiered in 1950 at the height of The Cold War and the start of McCarthy's populist demagoguery Gian Carlo Menotti's story of stateless and paperless 'citizens of nowhere' seeking refuge still indicts state persecution and Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

Michelle Alexander (Magda Sorel) © Clive Barda
Michelle Alexander (Magda Sorel)
© Clive Barda

Written to his own libretto, Menotti propels the narrative with terse conversational immediacy, with sharply drawn characters, interwoven with moments of heightened metaphorical lyricism and surreal dream sequences. The eclectic score echoes the bitter-sweet spikiness of Weill in his Brecht collaborations and the nostalgia of Samuel Barber, his long time partner. Although he studied and was an exile in the United States at the time of composition, Menotti commands the direct emotional audience response of his Italian predecessors, Puccini and Mascagni.The Pullitzer Prize-winning score ran for eight months on Broadway and won the New York critics award for best musical. We are far, however, from the uplift of Rodgers and Hammerstein in what is, ultimately, a depressing story.

In an undefined European state Magda Sorel, the wife of a dissident, John who is on the run, attempts to secure an entry visa from a supposedly more liberal and open country. All visas must be approved by the nameless Consul, who never appears and whose very existence is doubted. He is punctiliously guarded by an equally nameless Secretary, ready to produce yet another form for completion. Simon Corder's designs catch the drab post-War atmosphere moving flexibly from a dingy kitchen to the Consulate, stacked high with filing cabinets and chairs. The subtle lighting delineates the different layers of grim reality and surreal otherness.

Christian Valle (Secret Police Agent) and Michelle Alexander (Magda Sorel) © Clive Barda
Christian Valle (Secret Police Agent) and Michelle Alexander (Magda Sorel)
© Clive Barda

The cast remains on stage throughout, in their 1950s austere shabbiness, anonymous in the shadows “waiting, waiting” their turn. In Stephen Medcalf's sharply focused production they emerge as individuals each with their own sad story, or as a Greek-style chorus commenting and participating, as in the poignant funeral rites following the death of Magda's baby son or aggressively foot-stamping in the protest march before the final scene.

In one of opera's great might-have-beens Menotti had wanted to cast the then unknown (in the US) Maria Callas as Magda. After a somewhat nervy and fidgety start, the resilient soprano Michelle Alexander realised the role's dramatic intensity, pathos and proud defiance, never more so than in the literally show-stopping “To this we've come”, standing for all oppressed women. As her husband, Jake Muffet's pliant baritone impressed especially in the lyrical expansion of the Scene 1 trio. As Mother, Chloe Latchmore's tender mezzo avoided over-sentimentality in her lullaby over her sickly grandson.

Michelle Alexander (Magda Sorel) and Emily Kyte (Secretary) © Clive Barda
Michelle Alexander (Magda Sorel) and Emily Kyte (Secretary)
© Clive Barda

Notable in the uniformly strong ensemble were Emily Kyte as the Secretary, officious but with an inner sympathy, and Eduard Mas Bacardit as Nika Magadoff, whose open flexible tenor relished his airy, almost burlesque lines and he was also a dab hand at magic tricks.

Conductor Timothy Redmond drew vivid playing from the orchestra, punctuated by insistant patterns and piano chords in the endless repetitions of pleading and rejection. With its disparate musical elements ranging from light comedy to verismo rawness the score did not always cohere into a convincing dramatic span, but this is a weakness of Menotti rather than excecution.

In the ultimate self-sacrifice Magda, her mother and son both dead and her husband in custody, and still harried by the secret police, turns on the gas oven as nightmarish elements of her past haunt her. The defiant pathos of the Big Tune of “To this we come” wells up in the orchestra on a note of human dignity. The last sound we hear though is Magda's last breath, in unison with the chorus, as the gas takes lethal effect.

****1