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Opera Bel Cantanti's 'Amahl'

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

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Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors (original television cast), NBC Symphony Orchestra, T. Schippers
(RCA, 1951)
In my early years, it seemed like Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors was an annual December tradition. Perhaps memory deceives, but there always seemed to be a church company somewhere that mounted a production, probably in an uninterrupted succession since its premiere, on NBC Television in 1951. Without any data on the matter, productions seem far rarer in the last decade or two, and so it was that even a culture maven like Miss Ionarts had not experienced any production of this opera for children until Saturday night, when Opera Bel Cantanti revived its production, heard at opening night in the parish hall of the Concord-St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in Bethesda.

The cast featured some excellent singing, led by the Mother of soprano Jennifer Lynn Waters, whose voice has grown admirably in control and power since we last heard her in the Washington National Opera Young Artists performance of Madama Butterfly in 2011. The three kings made a beautiful sound together, with bass Ethan Lee Green, a recent graduate from Maryland Opera Studio, standing out especially. Hannah Slayton, a seventh grader from Charlottesville, was confident and well prepared in the title role, just slightly wan at the top of her voice. In keeping with most productions of this opera, the staging was charmingly homespun, with the company's general director, Katerina Souvorova, providing the accompaniment on an electronic keyboard, with some of the harp and flute effects added via a second synthesizer. Costumes (Linda Jenks) and sets (Olga Shpitalna) were simple but effective.

Cast in Amahl and the Night Visitors, Opera Bel Cantanti (photo by Alexandre Souvorov)

Amahl remains in the record books as the first opera created ab initio for the medium of television, but its populist sentiments -- "I wonder if rich people know what to do with their gold! Do they know how a child could be fed? Do rich people know? Do they know that a house can be kept warm all day with burning logs?" the mother angrily asks -- may not sit as easy with audiences these days. Christ's message of hope to the poor and the guilt it induced in well-to-do hearts used to be the secret ingredient of the Christmas spirit, but not having heard this opera in some time, I was struck by how some listeners today might chafe at its pieties.

The libretto's power, like the story of the Second Shepherds Play from the Towneley Cycle, comes from the intersection of normal people, a crippled boy named Amahl and his poor widowed mother, with the miraculous story of Christ's birth. Just as the mother is at her wit's end with her son's lying and laziness, not sure where their next meal will come from, three kings from the east knock at their door and ask to spend the night. She is tempted by the gold and other gifts they carry to some other boy, but in the end money is not the most precious thing she and her son have to gain.

This performance repeats on December 12 and 19.

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