GIAN CARLO MENOTTI (1911 – 2007): Amahl and the Night Visitors — Phillip Webb (Amahl), Stephanie Foley Davis (Mother), Jacob Ryan Wright (Kaspar), Robert Wells (Melchior), Donald Hartmann (Balthazar), Forrest Bunter (Page); Greensboro Opera Amahl Chorus and Orchestra; David Holley, Conductor, Producer, and Stage Director [Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer, Technical Director, and Stage Manager; Trent Pcenicni, Wigs and Makeup Designers; Michael Job, Choreographer; Greensboro Opera, Well•Spring, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 19 December 2019]
It may have been the French who first aphorized that good things can emerge from small packages. Wherever this conceit originated, its validity is apparent in virtually all aspects of life and art. By operatic standards, a title rôle written for a juvenile singer, a score with a running time of less than an hour, and a libretto of conversational concision indisputably qualify Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors as a small package. Commissioned by America’s National Broadcasting Company, the first performance of Menotti’s small package of an opera inaugurated the long-running Hallmark Hall of Fame television series on 24 December 1951, broadcasting from NBC’s Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the space from which Arturo Toscanini’s celebrated performances with the NBC Symphony Orchestra were transmitted and where Saturday Night Live continues to be staged.
The first new opera aired by NBC Opera Theatre, Amahl and the Night Visitors remains the most successful of the pieces that were written especially for NBC telecasts. Bringing Menotti’s tale of the intersection of the lives of an impoverished boy and his mother with the narrative of Christ’s nativity to both the lovely theater in Greensboro’s Well•Spring community and Lexington’s Edward C. Smith Civic Center, the revival of Greensboro Opera’s much-admired production of Amahl and the Night Visitors validated that this innovative opera is a small package that yields great things.
When discussing Amahl and the Night Visitors Menotti was candid about his struggle to choose a subject to fulfill NBC’s commission and the sources of inspiration that ultimately produced the piece. Citing a recollection of holiday traditions familiar from his childhood that was spurred by viewing an image of the Adoration of the Magi painted by Hieronymous Bosch in the last quarter of the Fifteenth Century [the long-disputed attribution of the single panel that Menotti saw in New York’s Metropolitan of Art, a work unrelated to the triptych in the collection of Madrid’s Museo del Prado, to Bosch was legitimized by scholars in 2016], the composer intimated that the work was an affectionate homage to the innocent wonderment of his youth.
Writing his own libretto and completing the score mere days before the opera’s première, Menotti enlisted the aid of his partner, Samuel Barber, in orchestrating the music. His previous short operas Amelia Goes to the Ball, The Old Maid and the Thief (commissioned by NBC for radio broadcast), The Medium, and The Telephone identified Menotti as a master of opera in miniature, these pieces limning emotional and dramatic complexities with brevity. Contrasting the desperation and despair of Amahl and his mother with the vivid, sometimes comedic idiosyncrasies of the three kings, Menotti created in an opera that runs for only forty-five minutes a remarkably cogent work of art. Alongside other composers’ hours-long musical orations, Amahl and the Night Visitors is Menotti’s operatic Gettysburg Address.
Maternal devotion: mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Mother in Greensboro Opera’s December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]
Like Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, another work conceived as an entertainment for youngsters that was handsomely staged at Well•Spring by Greensboro Opera [reviewed here], Amahl and the Night Visitors transcends the implicit limitations imposed by its target audience. Too many productions succumb to temptations either to bloat the opera with dogmatic evangelizing or to entomb Menotti’s endearing story behind a façade of family-friendly kitsch, but Amahl and the Night Visitors is neither Wagnerian drama nor childish frivolity. Principal amongst the virtues of Greensboro Opera’s General and Artistic Director David Holley’s production of Amahl was its dedication to presenting the piece on its own terms, avoiding the pitfalls of extrapolated political and religious subtexts. To his credit, Holley retained Amahl’s astonished declaration that one of the kings at the door is Black, which here was precisely what Menotti intended it to be—a child’s guileless observation and nothing more.
The audience’s attention focused by Robert Hansen’s simple but effective scenic design on the relationship between Amahl and his despondent mother, Holley’s direction employed understated motion to advance the plot. Deborah Bell’s costumes and Trent Pcenicni’s wigs and makeup, aptly rustic for the shepherds and magnificently opulent for the three kings, ensured that differentiations between poor and rich were unmistakable, yet there was no impression of condescension or class strife. Rather, Holley’s staging emphasized the common humanity shared by all of the characters. Executed with grace and athleticism by Chelsea Hilding and D. Jerome Wells, Michael Job’s choreography complemented the production’s aesthetic by offering the shepherds’ dance as an earnest entertainment for the weary visitors. Integral to the show’s success were Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs and technical direction. The use of light is particularly important in an opera in which a star is virtually a member of the cast, and, elucidating the fidelity to Menotti’s vision that was the core of Holley’s direction, Neubauer’s work shone brightly, literally and figuratively.
From the first bar of the opera’s Andante sostenuto opening to the overwhelmed mother’s bittersweet vigil as she watched her son depart with the magi in search of Christ in the final scene, Holley’s conducting combined rhythmic tautness with affectionate lyricism. Having sung Amahl in his youth, Holley brought to this performance career-long acquaintance with the score. In this instance, familiarity engendered not contempt but commitment to continuing to deepen his comprehension of the piece. Not least in the superb quartet for Amahl’s mother and the kings, in which his pacing allowed the singers to fully explore the gravitas of the music, Holley’s tempi gave the performance a firm pulse. Paralleling his direction of the production, Holley’s conducting of the performance yielded engaging clarity, disseminating the score’s poignant messages of tolerance and compassion from page to stage to audience with unfeigned eloquence and unflagging musicality.
Menotti’s and Barber’s orchestrations provide some of Amahl’s greatest delights, but the incisive playing of an imaginative arrangement for an ensemble considerably smaller than the full symphony orchestra at Menotti’s disposal when the opera was written served the composer and his composition splendidly. Oboist Thomas Turanchik, harpist Gerry Porcaro, percussionist Erik Schmidt, and pianist Emily Russ performed their parts as though they, like the portentous star, were joining the cast on stage, their phrasing so synchronized with that of the singers that instruments and voices sometimes seemed to emerge from a single entity. The choristers, many of whose fine voices were familiar from UNCG Opera Theatre’s recent production of Die Fledermaus and Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 staging of Pagliacci, sang Menotti’s music for the shepherds rousingly, the elation of their depiction of the community’s collective awe never impeding the accuracy of their intonation. Though the rôle of the magi’s page offers few opportunities for vocal display, another talented member of UNCG’s operatic family, baritone Forrest Bunter, denounced Amahl’s mother for her attempted theft of Melchior’s gold with rousing immediacy.
Strangers at the door: (from left to right) treble Phillip Webb as Amahl, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Mother, tenor Jacob Ryan Wright as Kaspar, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Balthazar, and baritone Robert Wells as Melchior in Greensboro Opera’s December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]
Entering through the house whilst resonantly intoning ‘From far away we come and farther we must go,’ Greensboro Opera’s Three Kings exhibited regal presence that made their night visit to Amahl and his mother an event that merited summoning the community of shepherds. Bass-baritone Donald Hartmann’s Balthazar was a benevolent presence with a voice that exuded august authority. There was humor in his singing of ‘I live in a black marble palace,’ however, and his utterance of ‘Thank you, good friends’ conveyed genuine gratitude. This Balthazar’s interactions with Amahl increasingly evinced paternal tenderness, the king perceptibly humbled by observing the boy’s hardships. Ever an artist whose characterizations are uncommonly nuanced, Hartmann characterized Balthazar as a man whose majesty transcended thrones and titles.
The quirky, hard-of-hearing Kaspar was endearingly portrayed by tenor Jacob Ryan Wright, whose ebullient singing of ‘This is my box’ imparted gentleness rather than obnoxious possessiveness, this good-hearted king regarding the prized item as an object of comfort and stability. Some singers’ depictions of Kaspar’s auditory challenges are distractingly overwrought, exaggeratedly played for laughs, but Wright avoided this sort of silliness, preferring a playful but dignified reading of the part.
Baritone Robert Wells completed the triumvirate of magi with a poised, prognosticatory performance as Melchior. The query that he posed to Amahl’s mother, ‘Have you seen a child the color of wheat,’ was voiced with pointed anticipation, and the prophetic consequence of the vivid imagery of ‘The child we seek holds the seas’ was heightened by the singer’s burnished vocalism. The sensitivity with which Wells sang ‘Oh woman, you may keep the gold’ lent the king’s magnanimity plausibility. Like his crown-bearing colleagues, Wells ignored stereotypes, devising a notably personal portrait of Melchior.
Family affair: mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Mother (left) and treble Phillip Webb as Amahl (right) in Greensboro Opera’s December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]
Greensboro Opera’s Amahl had in mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis a mother who sang Menotti’s music with remarkable ease and spontaneity, song seeming more natural for the character than speech. Whether portraying the cunning Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Humperdinck’s Hänsel, Cio-Cio San’s loyal companion Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, or Amahl’s mother, Foley Davis manifests an exceptionally broad spectrum of emotions via singing of beauty and technical expertise. The exasperation felt by Amahl’s mother coursed through the mezzo-soprano’s voicing of ‘All day long you wander about in a dream,’ but, here and in both ‘Dear God, what is a poor widow to do’ and ‘What shall I do with this boy,’ the musical line was never compromised for sentimental effect.
When Foley Davis sang ‘I am a poor widow,’ it was not as an artist singing about a character: in that moment, she was the poor widow of whom she sang, the mother’s fear for her son’s well-being suffusing the singer’s tone with maternal warmth. The expressivity with which she sang ‘Yes, I know a child the color of earth’ and ‘The child I know on his palm holds my heart’ revealed that, in nobility of spirit, this unfortunate young mother was a worthy peer of her visitors. Foley Davis’s subtle exclamation of ‘All that gold!’ affirmed that the mother’s theft of Melchior’s gold was only a momentary surrender to temptation. She voiced ‘For such a king I’ve waited all my life’ with affecting humility. The image of the mother silently watching the start of her son’s trek with the magi, delicately acted by Foley Davis, was incredibly moving. Enlivening performances with insightful portrayals of dynamic characters is one of the most commendable achievements of Foley Davis’s artistry, but her exquisite depiction of Amahl’s mother in this staging of Amahl and the Night Visitors was in a class of its own.
Menotti was adamant that, whether on television or on stage, Amahl must always be sung by a boy singer, a mandate that continues to give conductors and directors nightmares. Adages concerning the perils of working with children notwithstanding, casting an age-appropriate boy as Amahl is problematic. A high caliber of musical precocity can negatively impact an Amahl’s realization of the innocence and naïveté that pervade the rôle, but Amahl’s music is undeniably difficult. Greensboro Opera’s production effectuated a consistent balance between musicality and dramatic credibility by casting thirteen-year-old Phillip Webb as Amahl. Typical of a young man on the cusp of adolescence, Webb’s pure-toned voice was strongest and surest of intonation in its lower octave, but his highest notes were generally on pitch and unfailingly attractive. Traversing the stage with his crutch, pantomiming fervent bugle playing, nettling his mother, and later defending her from the page’s true but harsh accusation, Webb’s Amahl was charismatic, his performance reflecting the singer’s experience in Greensboro Opera’s Pagliacci. Still, the awkwardness of the character’s disability was not neglected. Webb valiantly held his own in a cast of consummate professionals, proving to be a captivating Amahl who earned his visitors’ esteem.
It has often been asked in the first decades of the Twenty-First Century whether, in a time of eroding cultural awareness and waning attention spans, opera remains relevant. It is far easier merely to state than to persuasively demonstrate that, yes, opera remains viable and valuable, both as a distraction from society’s fears and as a forum in which those fears can be productively analyzed and allayed. Composed in an era during which the world was plagued by the suspicions of the Cold War, Amahl and the Night Visitors embodies the ethos of hope that opera at its best can wield. There is no better answer to questions about the necessity of opera in the Twenty-First Century than this promise of hope, and Greensboro Opera’s production of Amahl and the Night Visitors was unquestionably opera at its best.