On Thursday, December 1, Long Leaf Opera opened this season's run of Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Durham. It should be a part of everyone's Christmas ritual as much as Messiah, The Nutcracker and "Frosty the Snowman." Commissioned by NBC and hyped as the first opera written for television, it was premiered on TV on Christmas Eve, 1951. The score and the libretto, both written by Menotti, make use of some childhood experiences from his own life. It received mostly positive reviews, drew a fair audience share, and was repeated for several years but was, alas, finally dropped from commercial television and seemed to almost disappear for a time. Of late, however, its beauty and value have been reaffirmed, and now it is done seasonally in most communities that have the relatively modest resources it requires.
Amahl has everything you would want in grand opera – beautiful arias, duets, and ensembles, sprightly dancing, comic relief, a moving chorus, and a simple, heart-tugging story. Menotti's music is uncomplicated yet musically satisfying and pleasing to the ear. It is sung in English and is short and lively enough to hold the attention of most young children – and charming enough to touch any adult. The story involves a little crippled shepherd boy who lives with his poor widowed mother and the events that occur when they are visited by the Three Kings and their page shortly before the first Christmas.
Randolph Umberger and the staff of Long Leaf Opera are adding to their already-established reputation for doing remarkable things with limited resources. They begin with dedicated artists. The cast of this production is virtually the same that appeared last year, and the experience shows. Though some have more stage presence than others, it all comes together in a totally delightful experience. Some of the highlights of the evening were the duets between Denise Murchison Payton as Amahl's mother and Joseph Bishop as Amahl. Payton's rich mezzo tones melded like honey and toast with Bishop's treble. The trio of the three kings coming from afar (the back of the auditorium) after Amahl and his mother have retired for the night brought an air of mystery and expectation. Kaspar was played by Carl Johnson, Melchior, by Robert Weston Williams, and Balthazar, by Henry S. Gibbons. The king's page was Shiangtai Tuan. Each did their bits with convincing wisdom and regality. You will likely never forget Balthazar's "This is my box." The dancers – Lené Judge, Agnieszka Kokot, and Ayako Wakatsuki Pederson – were lively, natural, and beautiful as they entertained the three kings (and the audience). The chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses was well-prepared and added depth and universality to the production. The orchestra, led by Benjamin Keaton, provided all the beauty, wit, and charm Menotti called for in his fine score.
Sets, costumes, lighting, stage-managing, and all the other behind-the-scenes creativity of such a production reflected much hard work and dedication. By all means, gather the children, bring the neighbors, get tickets as soon as possible and go to see Amahl and the Night Visitors in Chapel Hill on December 16 or 17 – our calendar has all the details. Your holiday season will be brighter and richer for it.