By Clover Carroll
Are you looking for a wholesome, heartwarming cultural activity for the whole family that captures the true meaning of Christmas this holiday season? Then look no further than Ash Lawn Opera’s new production of Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti, being performed at the Paramount Theatre Saturday, December 8, at 4:30 and 7 p.m. (Note: the matinee is already sold out).
Though less well known, this transcendent story of love, sacrifice, and healing stands alongside O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as a beloved Christmas classic. The lyrics sung in English, one-hour length, and affordable price make it “the most accessible of operas, ideal for a family outing,” observes Michelle Krisel, general director of Ash Lawn Opera. “Our mission in expanding our season into the winter is to expose a whole new generation of families to classical music. We want to build a broader and younger audience, to turn children into opera lovers. Amahl has multigenerational appeal and represents our first major collaboration with the local community.”
With lead singers hailing from highly prestigious opera companies around the country—including the Metropolitan Opera (Hyung Yun as Melchior), Santa Fe Opera (Brandy Lynn Hawkins as Amahl’s mother), and Washington National Opera (Kenneth Kellogg as Balthazar plus stage director Andrea Dorf)—this is guaranteed to be a top-notch production. Sharing the stage with this star power will be twenty local singers from The Virginia Consort, led by Judy Gary, as well as sixteen members of The Wilson School of Dance—all conducted by Kate Tamarkin, music director of the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra, many of whom will fill the orchestra pit. The role of Amahl will be sung by Crozet’s own Chloe Horner, a seventh grader at Henley Middle School.
Amahl retells the Christmas story through the experiences of a crippled shepherd boy eking out a subsistence living with his single mother near Bethlehem. The birth of Christ and the journey of the three kings serve as a backdrop to the central drama of how Amahl and his mother—so impoverished that they are contemplating a life as beggars—will even survive. Writing the libretto as well as composing the glorious music, Menotti introduces humor into this dark scenario by perfectly capturing the mixture of devotion, protectiveness, and rebellion that typify any mother/son relationship.
The scene opens with the plaintive melody of Amahl’s shepherd’s pipe echoing across the fields, created by the oboe. When Amahl goes inside and tells his mother about the “star as large as a window” above the house, she scolds him for telling tall tales. Matters grow worse when there is a knock on the door and Amahl reports that there are three kings outside! But his mother soon learns that he is telling the truth about both extraordinary events.
Inviting the kings inside for the night—along with their page and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—she calls the other shepherds to bring food to entertain her guests. As night falls, a crime committed under duress leads to a miracle that is completely believable within the context Menotti has created. As the kings continue to follow the star, we experience Christ’s promise to bring light into a dark world. This intimate, personalized version of the familiar journey of the magi as they seek a new kind of king emphasizes how Christ’s birth bridged the gap between rich and poor and celebrated the worth of the common man.
Menotti, who was born in Italy in 1911 and emigrated to the United States at the age of 17, writes with the soaring lyricism and singable melodies typical of Italian opera, but adds a mystical element with minor keys and startling harmonies. His other most famous work is The Medium (1946). Commissioned in 1951 by NBC to write the first opera for television, Menotti was inspired by Hieronymous Bosch’s 1516 painting The Adoration of the Magi. The music of Amahl is a miracle in itself, highly original and intensely moving. Menotti was a master of transforming the natural inflections of ordinary conversation into musical lines, from Amahl’s breathless report of the gigantic star (“Mother, Mother! Mother, come and see!”) to his curious interrogation of the kings (“Amongst your magic stones…Is there one that could cure a crippled boy?”). Menotti also captures the exotic Middle Eastern setting through his music, from the simple, folk-like melody of Amahl’s shepherd’s pipe to the sinuous dance music of the shepherds. The orchestration brilliantly reflects the action on stage, with staccato strings reflecting Amahl’s limping across the room on crutches; regal, sonorous chords accompanying the appearance of the three kings at the door; and close, sweet harmonies imbuing the tender duets between Amahl and his mother. The plaintive duet between Amahl and his mother as they plan their begging strategy will melt your heart, and the luminous, ethereally beautiful quartet in which the three kings describe the many-faceted character of the Christ child while Amahl’s mother draws a comparison to her own beloved son is a major highlight of the score. Menotti returned to Italy later in life to become artistic director of the Rome Opera.
Ash Lawn Opera formed in 1978 and performed for many years outdoors in the boxwood garden at the home of James Monroe. They moved to the Paramount in 2009 in order to produce more professional productions and reach a wider audience. Krisler, who worked with Placido Domingo at the Washington National Opera for fourteen years before joining ALO in 2010, is tackling more difficult, tragic works this summer—a “two-hanky season,” she confesses. Auditions for La Bohème by Puccini and Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein will be held January 6, 2013, with performances planned for July and August. Lead singers fly in from all over the country and are housed locally by volunteers, so please consider supporting the local arts scene in this way. ALO also educates children by providing entry points to opera through its Teaching Artists program. Charlottesville is lucky to have our own, local opera company offering superlative music and theater to enrich our cultural lives! For tickets to the evening performance of Amahl ($27 adults / $16.50 students / $6 youth) or for additional audition information, visit www.ashlawnopera.com.