It has often been my great good fortune as a reviewer to know exactly what I am going to say after 10 minutes. This either means that I am very excited to experience the subsequent hours in the theater, or that I’ll be checking my watch every 5 minutes in the hopes that the torture will not be too prolonged. When it is a bad performance, with inaccuracies, disappointing casting, lack of vision, musically or theatrically, etc, many critics feel it necessary lambast the company. Fortunately, this semi-staged production of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Friday night, despite its varying levels of conventional success, occasioned no venomous complaint.
I absolutely love the stark contrast between the brilliant white paint, and the dark stained exposed wooden beams and pews that line the inside of the sanctuary of the sanctuary. The sizable orchestra played on floor level with the conductor’s podium. There was a bench at the center of the performing space, and not much else. As the lights came down, the company processed to each side of the choir loft as if preparing for an evensong, rather than a theatrical. Conductor Joe Turbessi entered with Amahl to brief applause, which Turbessi accepted somewhat curtly as if to say “thank you, but just wait for the music we have prepared for you.”
The story of Amahl takes place amid the Christian story of the three Kings that followed a star to greet the newborn Jesus. Amahl, and his mother, are poor shepherds in a town en-route to Bethlehem. Amahl walks with a crutch and is a very imaginative boy, much to his mother’s chagrin. He is always coming up with farfetched stories, to the admonition of his mother. One night, as they are preparing for bed, there is a knock at the door. Amahl goes to the door to discover that there are 3 kings outside. His mother, not believing him, goes to the door to prove once and for all that he is lying. The Kings then enter, along with their servant. The kings tell stories of the child who they are looking for, and who they bring gold and gifts to. Amahl’s mother, seeing the gifts and the gold, and reflecting on her own poverty, contemplates the amount of good she could do for her son with the gold. Amahl goes to round up the other shepherds to bring offerings to the kings, and there is a great choral number where the shepherds list off a grocery list of gifts they have brought. After this, the household turns in for the night, but Amahl’s mother, thinking that the kings are asleep, attempts to steal some of the gold. The king’s servant sees her, and demands that she give it back. The kings arouse, and realizing what has happened, they eventually understand and sympathize with Amahl’s mother saying that the child that they are seeking does not need gold, or gifts. Amahl, wanting to give something to the child, offers him his crutch. The adults in the room are panicked, but miraculously, Amahl is cured from his malady, and is able to walk without the crutch. The kings are convinced that Amahl is anointed by the Christchild, and that he should go to bring thanks to Jesus himself. The kings, and Amahl, leave the scene toward Bethlehem, following the star with the longest tail in the sky.
From the first few moments of the warm string introduction, it was obvious that as persuasive and clear as Turbessi was in his direction, and as much as he tried to elicit a bath of string texture, the strings were struggling with intonation in some very exposed passages. Likewise, there were small blips of inaccuracies with the singers, and occasions where the solo voices were overpowered by the orchestra which dramatically outnumbered the singers—even with a full complement of choristers in the choir stalls. We were hearing a very honest performance of amateurs.
I truly mean that: Amateurs. These performers, at levels of proficiency ranging from seasoned, to clueless about where is downstage, were so committed to the text and to the music that occasionally I completely forgot my critical mission. Eileen Christensen (Amahl’s Mother) emotionally conveyed the difficulty that she faced, knowing that she was unable to provide for her son, while at the same time exuding confidence and compassion for Amahl—even while scolding him for lying, and trying to protect him from the eventuality of his sickness. Christensen could dig deep into the universal fear of inept parenthood, pouring forth a deep-hearted flood of tone. Soprano Silvan Friedman, who was a charismatic and innocently charming Amahl, started out with some opening night vocal jitters, but by the end of the show, he was comfortable in his skin and in Menotti’s rhythms. The farewell duet between him and his mother was especially beautiful, and I hope very much that he has another opportunity to sing Amahl before his voice changes.
When the Kings entered, with varying styles and colors of suits (and a very unique crown for Balthazar), their processional had the gravitas and attention to detail of a professional marching band. Much of this credit goes to Peter Littlefield who was responsible for the efficient and effective staging. Seth Grondin as King Balthazar sang with an authoritarian bass that was more than capable of being heard over the orchestra. Andrew Miller as King Melchior spun a warm richness that conveyed the paternalistic instincts of his character, if occasionally was outmatched by the orchestra. Ethan DePuy played a flamboyantly charming (and deaf) King Kaspar. His aria, “This is my box,” is normally a highlight, however, no amount of licorice thrown into the audience (yes, this happened) was able to make up for the difficulty that I had in hearing him, and understanding the text throughout. His voice had a lovely light lyric timbre in the top, but the comedy of the role definitely comes from Kaspar’s continuously “actually” not hearing anyone. This performance was played for those laughs, and while the audience chuckled in appreciation for it, I would like to see more from DuPuy than grasping for such low hanging comedic fruit.
Most choruses in a concert or semi-staged performance tend to use a generic black or some such costume equalizer, so that they disappear into the scenery, or at least do not distract from the action happening downstage. This chorus, did the absolute opposite. As they filed (a term used loosely) downstage for their big moment before greeting the kings, their clothes and demeanor were undeniably evident. There were many awkwardly shuffling feet, numerous untucked dress shirts, what looked like a sweatsuit or two, and of course, a Boston Red Sox jersey on full display. My initial, and critical reaction to this was “did they not rehearse for this show?” It seemed very much as if their participation in this production came at the last-minute. My first impulse was, of course, to judge this with the rubric that I would judge, say, the Boston Lyric Opera, but then I had a revelation: Isn’t this configuration of mismatched voices and personas exactly what it is supposed to be for this pluralistic choral character? Amahl has gone to the shepherds, who have ostensibly been working all day, to bring gifts to unannounced kings. Most of them, I’d imagine, had never seen a king, and don’t have any idea how to comport themselves in their presence. Likewise, there were probably choristers that have never been in a staged production, and had the “deer in the headlights” look from the beginning, and never lost it, complete with foot tapping and head-bobbing to keep track of the music as it whizzed by.
As I discovered that this was the true case of the matter, and my heart grew 3 sizes that day, I realized that this production with its quirks and inaccuracies, was the most honest performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors that I have ever seen. Everyone was so committed to the story, and to the lives of the central figures, that there was no one that was giving a traditionally “semi-staged” performance, not even the orchestra. Christensen and Friedman chemistry was wondrous to experience; each hug evinced love between them. Likewise, the Kings seemed to have a great rapport, thought understandably disoriented in the house of a young boy and his mother. The ragtag chorus, that may or may not have theatrically rehearsed for this production, fully conveyed the pastoral, blue-collar sentiment of these many shepherds that are having to rally after a long day of work, to bring food and offerings to kings (or audience, in this case) that they do not know, or know anything about.
Where originally I was very concerned about the “conservatory pomp of the opera” I have now come completely around, and am of the opinion that this well-loved opera of Menotti’s is a perfect one for this type of a group to produce. The music, which has 20th-century modern rhythms and harmonies, also sounds very tuneful and accessible piece for all ages. As the story tells us, there is no better thing to do than to share the gifts that we all possess. Imperfect though the show was, its passion and generosity gave the perfect nudge to my holiday spirit.