|About this Recording
8.112023-24 - MENOTTI, G.: Consul (The) / Amelia al ballo (Engel, Sanzogno) (1950, 1954)
Gian Carlo Menotti (1911–2007)
Opera buffa in One Act • Libretto by the Composer
Amelia – Margherita Carosio (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
Recorded in the Teatro alla Scala, Milan in March 1954
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
The composer Gian Carlo Menotti continued the lyric opera tradition of Puccini throughout his long life, despite musical tastes moving in completely different directions as the twentieth century progressed. Menotti put his audience first, creating operas for radio and television, working in film, and founding major music festivals in Europe, America and Australia. Although frequently the object of musical criticism, of critics themselves he once wittily commented ‘They often spoil my breakfast but never my lunch’.
Menotti was born in 1911 in Cadegliano, Italy, a small town near Lake Lugano in Lombardy. The sixth of eight children, his father was a coffee merchant, and his mother an active musician, who taught her children to play the piano, violin and cello. By the time he was five Menotti was composing songs. His first opera, The Death of Pierrot, was written to be performed as a puppet show when he was eleven, and his second opera, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, was completed two years later. In 1924 the family moved to Milan where Menotti studied at the Verdi Conservatory of Music for three years, often visiting La Scala as well as developing a taste for the exotic. When he was seventeen, he accompanied his mother on an unsuccessful trip to Columbia to try to restore the family coffee business. On their return in 1928, his mother deposited him at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Here, armed with a letter of introduction from Toscanini, he commenced study with Curtis’s distinguished professor of composition, Rosario Scalero, who finding him talented but lacking in discipline, set him a course of counterpoint and studies of early music. While at Curtis Menotti met another composer, Samuel Barber, who was to become his companion in life.
Menotti began to compose his first mature opera, Amelia al ballo (Amelia goes to the Ball) while staying in Austria with Barber in 1933. It was sufficiently successful at its first performance in Philadelphia in 1937 for it to be presented at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, during the following season and for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to commission Menotti to compose the first radio opera, The Old Maid and the Thief. This was broadcast in 1939 and was later re-written for stage performance. Menotti’s next opera, The Island God, failed when presented at the Metropolitan Opera in 1942. However, The Medium, composed in 1946, ran for 211 performances on Broadway during 1947, in tandem with another, lighter, work by Menotti, The Telephone. His skills as a dramatist led to a contract with the film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to write screenplays. Although none of these was filmed, one of them did become an opera, The Consul, which was inspired by the plight of individuals trapped in European totalitarian states after the Second World War. Opening in 1950, it was extremely successful: it ran for 269 performances on Broadway, and won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Drama Critics’ Circle Award. During the following year NBC commissioned Menotti to write an opera for it once again, this time the first opera for television, Amahl and the Night Visitors (Naxos 8.669019). This again was very successful and was re-broadcast annually until the mid-1960s and has become one of the most performed of twentieth-century American operas. 1954 saw the first performance of The Saint of Bleecker Street, which enjoyed critical if not commercial success, and won a second Pulitzer Prize for the composer.
By this time the majority of Menotti’s significant works had been written, but he nonetheless continued to be quite prolific as a composer. The opera Maria Golovin, the product of a further commission from NBC, was first performed at the Brussels International Exposition in 1958, and in the same year the Metropolitan Opera staged Barber’s Vanessa (Naxos 8.669140–41), with a libretto by Menotti. Also in 1958
Menotti founded the Spoleto Festival in Italy, the purpose of which was to bring together established and young artists. This was followed by several more operas: yet another one for NBC entitled Labyrinth; Le dernier sauvage, which was staged at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and at the Metropolitan Opera; and Martin’s Lie commissioned by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and first performed at the Bath Festival in England. In 1973 Menotti and Barber sold the house which they had shared in Mount Kisco, New York, and Menotti settled in Scotland with his adopted son, Francis. He founded a second Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1977, to be followed by a third one, based in Melbourne, Australia, in 1983. Two later operas were inspired by specific performers: La Loca (1979) was written as a farewell vehicle for Beverly Sills, and Goya (1986) was composed for Plácido Domingo. In 1984 Menotti was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the arts. His administrative efforts continued well into old age: in 1996 he took the helm at the Rome Opera for several years. He died at the age of 95 in 2007, in Monte Carlo, where he had a home.
The origins of Amelia al ballo go back to when Menotti and Barber were staying in Vienna, in a house belonging to a Czech baroness. Taken with her two guests from America, she frequently dined with them and regaled them with tales of life in ‘Old Vienna’, and especially the balls which were (and still are) a feature of Viennese social life. Menotti was also taken with an elaborately decorated porcelain dressing-table that stood in the baroness’s bedroom, and this and the tales of Viennese life became the direct inspiration for his first opera. After he had returned to America, he played excerpts from the newly-composed work to the founder of the Curtis Institute, Mary Curtis Bok, who decided that it should be produced on stage. So when Fritz Reiner, then on the staff of the Curtis Institute, asked her to finance a production at the Philadelphia Academy of Music of Darius Milhaud’s opera Le Pauvre Matelot for the benefit of the Institute, she agreed on condition that Menotti’s new opera should be paired with the Milhaud as a double bill. Reiner was at first reluctant to agree to this proposal, but eventually Mrs Bok prevailed and Amelia al ballo went on to be the hit of the evening. Mrs Bok then financed a showcase performance of it in New York, the outcome of which was the strange pairing of Amelia with Richard Strauss’s Elektra in performances at the Metropolitan Opera in March 1938. The critic of the New York World-Telegram, Pitts Sanborn, described the new work as ‘an agreeable example of modern Italian opera, vivacious and tuneful’ and reported that the conductor ‘Ettore Panizza kept the orchestra fizzling like champagne. A capacity audience acclaimed the work.’ In The New York Times the critic Harold Taubman succinctly analysed the reasons for the work’s success: ‘His music has the style and glitter of the operatic composers of his native land. The turn of a phrase here and there bears the stamp of distinguished Italian forebears, but the essential vitality, ingenuity and laughter are the composer’s own…Mr Menotti knows how to toss off a shapely tune. He knows how to whip up tumultuous climaxes. He knows how to write for the voice.’
Menotti was extremely sensitive to the ‘spirit of the times’ and few of his works reflect this more accurately than his first full-length opera, The Consul. It tells the story of a family’s attempts to gain the necessary visas to leave a bureaucratic police state. Composed at the end of the 1940s, after the war-time American-Soviet alliance had been replaced by the Iron Curtain and by a national fear of the effects of Communism, best expressed by the McCarthy hearings, this opera has been admirably described by the American writer Barry Singer as ‘a moody three-act exercise in noir-drenched paranoia that captures the Cold War zeitgeist of 1950’. Menotti had initially wanted to cast the young Greek-American soprano Maria Callas in the central rôle of Magda Sorel, indicating the level of dramatic intensity that he was seeking, but the producer vetoed this idea.
(Subsequent distinguished interpreters of this rôle have included another major Italian dramatic soprano of the 1950s and 1960s, Virginia Zeani, who sang the part to acclaim at the Florence May Festival of 1972 with the conductor and close colleague of Menotti, Thomas Schippers.) The Consul opened on Broadway in March 1950 immediately after a brief try-out in Philadelphia, and attracted rave reviews. The senior American critic Olin Downes commented ‘The Consul is as contemporary as the cold war, surrealism, television, [and] the atom bomb.’ It was this sense of timeliness which undoubtedly prompted the American Decca Record Company (no relation to the English company of the same name) to record the original Broadway cast. Amazingly this recording has never been reissued on compact disc until this present edition on Naxos. Unquestionably one of Menotti’s finest works, The Consul successfully brings together the composer’s command of stage-craft and his facility for writing music that is highly atmospheric to create a compelling dramatic whole.
The Consul • Synopsis
The setting is the home of John Sorel, a shabby apartment in a large European city. When the curtain rises the room is empty, and the windows are open.
 The words of a popular song being played on a gramophone in a café on a street outside can be heard. Suddenly John staggers into the room. He drags himself to a chair and calls for his wife, Magda Sorel. She runs in, carrying their child, and is followed by John’s Mother. John tells Magda that he is hurt. She examines him and asks the Mother for water and dressings. John tells Magda that he has been shot by the police, having attended a secret meeting. The Mother laments their situation.
 The Mother alerts them to the imminent arrival of the police. The two women help John into an alcove, hidden by a curtain. Magda takes up her sewing, before frantically wiping away John’s blood-stains on the floor. The Secret Police Agent rushes in, with two policemen who search the apartment. The Secret Police Agent interrogates Magda as to the whereabouts of John. In the face of her ignorance he threatens her through ‘her heart’, before leaving.
 As Magda calls to John, the Police arrest one of their neighbours. John tells Magda he must leave the country that night. She implores him to stay but to no effect. He advises her to seek help from the Consulate the following day. She must not seek help from his friends. He will send a signal when he has news for her: a stone will be thrown through the apartment window, and Assan will come to replace the broken glass.
 John, Magda and the Mother sing of farewell. John leaves and the curtain falls.
 Interlude (Orchestra)
The setting is the waiting room of the Consulate. The Secretary’s desk is in one corner. The Secretary is busy typing. Mr Kofner and the Foreign Woman, an old peasant, wait to be summoned by the Secretary.
 The Secretary summons Mr Kofner, but as many times previously, his papers are not completely in order and he must return with them once more. While this dialogue is going on Magda enters, followed by Anna Gomez.
 The Foreign Woman is summoned by the Secretary. She speaks in Italian which Mr Kofner does his best to translate. The Foreign Woman wants to go to her daughter who is ill and to look after her grandson. The Secretary tells her that she must apply for a visa, which may take several months to be granted. The Foreign Woman is stunned by this information. The Secretary gives her an application, and Mr Kofner leads her away to help her fill it in.
 As Magda approaches the Secretary, the Magician enters, followed by Vera Boronel. Magda asks to speak to the Consul but the Secretary tells her that no-one is allowed to do this. Magda explains what has happened to her husband John but the Secretary insists that she fill out a form. The Magician introduces himself to Vera Boronel, and asks if he may practice one of his tricks with her.
 As the sunlight slowly fades, the assembled characters sing a quintet, contrasting the endless waiting with freedom. The Foreign Woman goes out as the curtain falls.
It is late afternoon, one month later, in the Sorel’s apartment.
 The Mother is playing with Magda’s baby.
 As the baby goes to sleep she sings a lullaby. Magda enters, watches the Mother and then falls asleep at the table. As the Mother retires to the alcove, Magda’s nightmare begins. The light changes to an eerie glow, the doors open and John enters, bloodstained and bandaged, carrying branches and stones. Behind him is the Secretary, looking both voluptuous and evil. Magda goes towards them and then fetches a cloth for the table. As she spreads the cloth, John approaches her.
 Magda asks John why he has brought her the branches and stones, which the Secretary lifts from John’s hands and gives to Magda. She places them in a cupboard and returns with bread and, later, wine, placing them on the table. John says that he has been hunted. Magda asks who the woman with him is. He tells her that she is his little sister. Magda, repelled by her, wants John to send her away but he insists that they must welcome her. The Secretary gives John the bread and wine. As Magda compares the wine to blood and the bread to flesh, John embraces her. John asks to see their child. As Magda draws back the curtain of the alcove, she sees a horrifying figure carrying a dead child. She screams, the figures vanish, the room returns to how it was, and the Mother enters. Magda tells her about the dream, and of her fear that something has happened to John. A stone suddenly smashes the window.
 Magda and the Mother recognize this as the signal from John. As they wonder what to do, the Secret Police Agent enters. He tells her that the police are aware that she is trying to get a visa from the Consulate, and asks for the names of John’s associates. She vehemently tells him to leave. Assan the glasscutter enters as the Secret Police Agent leaves. The Mother discovers that the child is dead. Assan tells Magda that John is in the mountains. She urges that he should cross the frontier as soon as possible, and that they will join him, knowing that this may not be true, The Mother shows Assan the dead baby. Assan leaves.
 Magda asks the Mother why she is so still and realises that the baby is dead. The Mother weeps as she realizes she will not see her son again and that he will not see his baby. Magda places a candle by the dead baby’s cradle.
 Interlude (Orchestra)
A few days later, at the Consulate. The Secretary is searching for a file. The Magician and Vera Boronel sit on one bench, Mr Kofner and the Foreign Woman on another. Anna Gomez is highly distracted.
 The Secretary finds Anna Gomez’s file. Her permit has expired and she must leave, but no other country will have her. The secretary tells her to fill in a form. Anna wearily sits down next to Vera Boronel. Magda rushes in, and asks to see the Consul immediately. The Secretary tells her that she must wait her turn.
 The Magician presents a bouquet of flowers out of thin air for the Secretary. As he performs various tricks he introduces himself as Nika Magadoff. He asks for a visa, but the Secretary insists on his completing the necessary paper work. He hypnotizes all those waiting in the room and gets them to dance, as in a ballroom. The Secretary demands to see his papers, and the Magician searches frantically for them in his pockets, pulling out rabbits and exploding rockets as he does so. He re-awakens those whom he has hypnotized, and leaves, distracted.
 Magda asks the Secretary if there is any news for her. The Secretary locates her papers, which are not complete, and tells her that nothing can be done until all the papers are collected together. Magda accuses her of lying.
 Magda sings bitterly of the terrible way in which bureaucracy is used to destroy life. For the first time the Secretary is moved. She goes into the Consul’s office, and comes out promising Magda that she may see him after the present visitor leaves. As this person departs, Magda recognizes him as the Secret Police Agent and faints.
It is several days later in the Consulate. Magda is sitting alone on one of the benches. The Secretary is at the filing cabinet.
 The Secretary tells Magda that there is no point in her waiting: the Consul is not there and the office will close shortly. Vera Boronel enters. The Secretary tells her that her papers are almost ready. Vera signs all the papers as the Secretary authenticates them. Assan hurriedly enters and asks the Secretary if she has seen Magda. Magda asks him if he has news of John. They sit down together and Assan advises Magda to be careful. Assan tells her that John may try to return, having heard about his baby and his Mother. He is desperate and wants to see Magda. Magda worries that if John returns he will be arrested. As Assan and Magda sing of the dangers to John’s group if he returns, the Secretary and Vera Boronel continue to process Vera’s papers. Magda has an idea—she goes to the desk, writes a note, and then returns to her seat.
 Magda hands the note to Assan. She tells him that the note will convince John not to return and that the members of his group will be saved. Assan leaves with the note. The Secretary gives Vera all of her papers and wishes her a happy journey. As Vera leaves she notices Magda’s pocketbook on a bench. The Secretary calls for Magda, while Vera leaves the pocketbook on the Secretary’s desk.
 As the Secretary prepares to leave she laments the fate of all this who have to wait. John suddenly enters.
 John asks the Secretary if she has seen Magda. She tells him that she has just left. He says he cannot follow her, and that he must stay in the office—the police are waiting for him outside. The Secretary gives John Magda’s pocketbook, which he drops as he pulls out his gun, hearing the police outside. The Secret Police Agent rushes in and disarms John. John agrees to go with the police.
 The Secretary urges John not to be afraid: she will speak to the Consul in the morning and will telephone Magda.
The Sorel’s apartment immediately afterwards. The phone rings.
 Magda enters, dazed but determined. She uses her coat and John’s to close the crack below the door. She sits in front of the cooker and turns on the gas. Slowly the light fades. As the walls also fade, the figures of Vera Boronel, the Secretary, Anna Gomez, the Foreign Woman, and Mr Kofner appear, forming a Ghost Chorus, with John and the Mother standing behind them.
 The Ghost Chorus sings of the opening of Death’s frontiers, while the voice of the Police interrogates Magda. She turns to see the Chorus, which advances slowly towards her. The Magician appears before the members of the Chorus and invites them to dance. They start to dance and then continue to advance towards Magda. Magda hears the Mother’s voice and she confronts them: all the figures except John and the Mother disappear through the wall. The Mother invites Magda to join her in death. The Mother and John slowly fade away as the Secretary and Vera Boronel appear saying it is the end. John appears and asks to see their child. Magda tells him that the child is dead. He vanishes to be replaced once again by the Secretary and Vera Boronel. The Mother and John reappear, asking Magda if she is prepared.
 Magda asks them to wait for her as she hurriedly collects some papers and stuffs them into her bag. The Mother and John disappear, bidding Magda good-bye. Mr Kofner and the Foreign Woman appear separately, gesturing Magda to follow them, and then disappear. The Magician appears, and guides Magda to the cooker as he hypnotizes her. Magda sits down in exhaustion. The Magician disappears. All that can be heard is Magda’s breathing. As the telephone rings, the room is restored to reality. Magda hears the telephone, and tries to reach out for it. Her body falls slack over the chair.
Amelia al ballo (Amelia goes to the Ball) • Synopsis CD 2
 Orchestral prelude.
 The setting is the luxurious bedroom of Amelia, the wife of a wealthy citizen. Amelia stands in front of a mirror, while her two maids tighten her corset and search for her fichu. Her beautiful ball dress lies on a chair. A friend is sitting impatiently nearby. Amelia scolds the chambermaids, who offer her a necklace and a flower. As her friend urges that they leave, Amelia says that she is finally ready.
 Amelia and her friend sing a duet, suggesting that when women go dancing love and honour may come to grief.
 Amelia is still not quite ready—her fichu is still missing. Just as they are about to leave, Amelia’s husband enters.
 The husband announces that they are not going to the ball. He can only tell her the reason in private. After the friend and the maids have left, Amelia asks what it is that has caused this change of plan: has the coachman been drinking, is the grandfather dying, or does her husband have indigestion?
 The husband explains that he happened to see among Amelia’s papers a passionate letter, signed ‘Honey Bunny’. He would like an explanation. Amelia denies both his accusation of an amorous encounter and all knowledge of the letter.
 The husband reads the letter out loud: it is a passionate declaration of love to his wife.
 Crushed by the contents of the letter, the husband asks if she can still deny the letter. Amelia bursts into tears. The husband demands to know the truth and the name of her lover, while Amelia insists that she goes to the ball.
 In a duet Amelia resists her husband’s entreaties to name her lover, while her husband warns her not to go too far.
 Amelia suggests that she will tell her husband all he wants to know if he agrees to take her to the ball. After some initial hesitation her husband agrees, on his honour.
 Amelia tells her husband that her lover is the gentleman with the moustache who lives in the apartment above. She sees him only at night when her husband is asleep. Outraged her husband puts on his top-hat and cloak, and tells Amelia that before going to the ball he is going to have a chat with their neighbour with a pistol, and if Amelia still wants to go to the ball, they will go dancing while their neighbour nurses a broken skull. He leaves with his pistol at the ready, locking the door after him.
 Amelia unsuccessfully tries to open the door. She opens the window instead and starts to take off her jewels. She then runs to the window and calls to her lover above, telling him that her furious husband is on his way to see him.
 Amelia sings that while men want possessions, all that women want are innocent experiences. She prays that she may go to the ball.
 Amelia’s lover slides into the room on a rope, embraces her, and covers her with kisses. She urges him to leave but he refuses.
 Amelia warns her lover not to be stubborn: her husband is armed. Her lover gradually realises the predicament that he is in, and prepares to leave. However the rope has broken, and so her lover hides in an alcove.
 Amelia’s husband enters: he has been unable to find the lover. Amelia reminds him that they are to go to the ball. Her husband reluctantly agrees, to keep her quiet. As she prepares herself, her husband notices the rope on the balcony, realises that the lover is in the room and searches for him. Finding the lover, the husband prepares to shoot him with his pistol.
 The pistol however jams. Now the lover prepares to assault the husband, who suggests a calm discussion. While husband and lover debate the finer points of the situation, Amelia demands to be taken to the ball. Both urge her to be quiet. The husband asks the lover to explain how the indiscretion with his wife came about.
 In very romantic language, the lover explains his propensity for love. The husband looks enviously at his rival. They are about to restart their discussion when Amelia once again demands to be taken to the ball.
 In a terzetto, all three reflect on the inexplicable nature of love. What is right and what is wrong are tricky questions to answer. No one knows why love comes and goes. Each calls upon their heart to guide them. Amelia asks her husband for the last time if he is going to take her to the ball. He says no, and furious, she smashes a vase on his head. The husband collapses, unconscious. Frightened at what she has done, Amelia calls for help. The lover tries to revive the husband. The two maids rush in, see what has happened, fetch bandages and a basin, and place a compress on the husband’s head. Amelia continues to call for help.
 During an orchestral interlude neighbours and strangers, having heard Amelia’s cries, rush in, demanding to know what has happened. Seeing a body on the floor, they think Amelia must have committed a murder.
 The chief of police enters. At first he thinks Amelia’s lover is her husband, but the chorus corrects him. He asks who is the man on the floor. Amelia whispers to him, and, amazed by what she has said, he stands to attention and tells the chorus to summon an ambulance. He then asks Amelia to explain what has happened.
 Amelia tells the chief of police that as she was preparing to go the ball a man (her lover) entered through the balcony with a pistol which he aimed at her, demanding money. The lover denies this story vigorously, and implores Amelia to speak of their love. She denies all knowledge of him. The lover is handcuffed, while the ambulance-men arrive and take away the husband on a stretcher.
 The chief of police tells her not to despair: her husband will recover soon. But Amelia asks who will take her to the ball? The chief of police gallantly offers to do so. Realising that no-one can refuse the chief of police, Amelia begins once again to dress for the ball, as the lover is taken away by two policemen.
 The chorus sings that Amelia will go to the ball after all, and that the moral of the story is that if a woman sets her heart on going to the ball, that is where she will go. Magnificently dressed, Amelia leaves for the ball on the arm of the chief of police, to the cheers of the onlookers.
This CD set is the first in a series devoted to the compositions, operatic and otherwise, of Gian Carlo Menotti on the occasion of his centenary in 2011. The recordings in this series date from the mid-1940s through the late 1950s, and will feature several which have never before appeared on CD, as well as some that have not been available in any form in nearly half a century.
The present recording of The Consul, which makes its CD début here, was made a month after the work’s Philadelphia première. American Decca was at the time primarily a “pop” label, the home of Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, and did not yet have much experience in the area of Classical music. Indeed, this recording seems to have been done more because of the work’s critical acclaim on the Broadway stage than as an opera, since Decca had also recorded Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with members of the original cast around the same time.
The recording venue was very dry and closely miked, with overloading common during loud passages, despite the engineers’ attempts at “gain riding”. In addition, the original recording sounds as though it had been made on lacquer discs, which had their own pops and clicks not related to the pristine 1960s pressings which were used for this transfer. When the lacquers were transferred to tape for LP release, the engineers apparently edited between alternate takes or backup lacquers with little regard for matching volume or surface hiss levels, even for passages as short as a single word. Attempting to overcome all of these inherent flaws made for very difficult transfer work.
No such problems were involved with the recording of Amelia al ballo, which was transferred from first edition British LP pressings. Notwithstanding a couple instances of distortion during loud notes, it ranks with the Callas/Di Stefano recording of Pagliacci made three months later as one of the best sounding recordings EMI made at La Scala.
A word is in order about cuts. Menotti was concerned that some passages involving primarily visual stage business would not translate well for the home listening audience, and had them cut from the recorded score in both of the works featured here. The cuts are mostly innocuous and deal primarily with repetitive material. However, the one following “To this we’ve come” at the end of Act 2 of The Consul is dramatically significant, omitting as it does Magda’s fainting upon seeing the Secret Police Agent leaving the Consul’s office, and allowing the act to end on a note of defiant triumph at odds with what is actually happening in the story.
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