The Secret Consul starts with a magic trick. Christopher Whitelock as Nika Magadoff, a Magician, selects one of the audience and performs a disappearing trick with their ring. It is here, however, that fantasy ends and cold hard realism begins. Steve Tiller has made of Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Consul a site-specific, hour-long guerilla opera inside a dilapidated town hall which one is permitted only to refer to as 'An Undisclosed Location'. The experience of being herded around the building is bizarre, but the production is saved from being too rough and ready by its musical achievements. The result is a tantalizing show that is disturbing but hits all the right notes.

Lesya Aleksyeyeva as Magda © Simon Annand
Lesya Aleksyeyeva as Magda
© Simon Annand

The outstanding elements of The Secret Consul are its politically charged theme and excellent vocal performances. Moving from a consulate’s office into the home of tormented asylum seekers (in hiding from secret Police in their native country), the plot consists of one woman’s struggle against bureaucracy, endlessly waiting for her family to be granted asylum whilst she fears for both her husband and her sons’ lives.

Being manhandled around a two-level building by chorus members and standing throughout make not for a comfortable experience; but this is not the type of show you go to if you want comfort. It is meant to make us all examine the dilemma faced by an asylum speaker who believes that a democratic country will understand their problems and help. Their distress comes across powerfully in the bleak surroundings (which are of course still officially secret) and in Lesya Aleksyeyeva’s outstanding soprano voice. Despite her petite frame, the tone, quality and volume of her voice were a level above everybody else. Masami Uehara is competent in the role of The Secretary at the imaginary consulate, but Aleksyeyeva is by far and away the shining light with soaring high notes and beautifully harsh edge to her anguished arias. Trained at the Opera School of the Kunst Universitaet (Arts University) in Graz, Austria, she is currently preparing for two more roles with Ukranian National Opera, so in some respects already an accomplished international singer.

With all its musical and atmospheric curiosities, The Secret Consul is far more than just another novelty fringe opera. Musical Director Andrew Charity is present for one, fresh from his extraordinary success with OperaUpClose’s Olivier-Award winning La Boheme. One suspects he had much to do with the vocal accomplishment of his international cast, who are diverse in age, race and, I would dare to say, in ability. His small band were adequate and quietly confident, serving as a reliable backdrop to the vocal fireworks. Also interesting is the intrigue surrounding Menotti himself. This is not the first unconventional outing by this short opera, the Italian Julliard School graduate having written his ‘musical theatre’ piece in the late forties and subsequently seen it performed on TV and on Broadway. Fundamentally concerned with justice as it is, its new ‘Secret’ incarnation is only a twist on a tale that has continued for over half a century. But it has a distinct freshness about it; this might come from the heartfelt performance of its cast, the drama of its desperately shabby host building or the brief use of video projection during a sinister anonymous conversation between the heroine Magda Sorel and a mysterious be-hatted man: the Secret Consul himself perhaps? This is a production with much musical and intellectual stimulation for the listener. If only the drama could last beyond an hour and there was the possibility to sit.