Considering the demands of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera in one act, Amahl and the Night Visitors, the amateurs assembled by William J. Weisser from the membership of Edenton Street United Methodist Church did a spectacular job in Kerr Hall on the evening of January 4. The beautiful auditorium, air-conditioned for "June in January" weather, seats about 400. It was half full although this was a free performance.
The program reminded us that "Amahl and the Night Visitors is the first opera commissioned especially for television and was given its premiere by the NBC Television Opera Theater in New York City on December 24, 1951. It is the story of a poor crippled boy who experiences a visit by the three kings and offers to give his only [possession] - his crutch - to the baby Jesus."
Lucking out in the casting department, Weisser recruited Christine Conley, Choral Director of Broughton High School, to play the role of Amahl's mother. Her strong, well-pitched spinto quality soprano voice was appropriate for the part, always pleasing. Peter Mercer as Amahl looked and played the part to please the eye but not always the ear as his boy soprano voice was a bit husky. Nevertheless, he got the message across perfectly. He is a member of the Raleigh Boychoir. His voice will undoubtedly evolve into fine tenor or bass range very shortly. His personality was extremely well cast.
King Casper was played to the hilt by Roger Elliott, better known as the Rev. Dr. Roger Elliott, Senior Pastor of Edenton Street Methodist Church. The in-house audience delighted in his every nuance, a boisterous role reversal. We can rightfully call him a crossover artist. He came back into his customary "character" only when extemporizing a prayer at the end of the performance that sent his flock homeward focused upon the message of the miraculous. Brian McGuire, a tech/media person at Edenton Street UMC, did an equally successful crossover into the role of King Melchior. The other king was William Anderson, a loyal choir member, who played King Balthazar. Their trios were usually strong and well blended. Individual solos all came off very well.
David Holomon, of the ESUMC choir, gave a spirited performance as the Page. The shepherds were members of the Chancel Choir. If it had been technically possible to spotlight their procession on the left side aisle, they would have appeared as more spectacular. Nevertheless they acquitted themselves well, chorally.
As for the two shepherdess dancers, their intentional comic relief came off as a bit silly. (It is interesting how that word came out after having noted the comment about the "silly" babe in the manger when I heard Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" earlier in the day.) In previous performances of "Amahl," I have seen a single shepherdess dancer featured in a more serious audition before the Three Kings. Nevertheless, the Church Dance Group director, Domini Bowling, should be credited for the thought she put into this alternative choreography. The dancers followed instructions well and their talent offering is not meant to be minimized. It was simply not my favorite enactment among the various presentations I have encountered.
My utmost disappointment was the lack of flute sound while Amahl mouthed and fingered his little recorder. My head turned to where this action was taking place since it was below my sight line to the stage. This in no way diminishes the fine quality of the musical accompaniment, on two pianos, by Weisser and David K. Witt. A keyboard line can be made to flow but, without a synthesizer, it cannot resemble a flute. (This was due to the license agreement with G. Shirmer, which permitted use of pianos only, according to Weisser, but I have heard it done simply with piano and flute.)
The Kings' entrance down the center aisle blocked the action on the stage for those seated on the aisle. Opera North's production, in a little church on the village green in Norwich, Vermont, near New Hampshire's Dartmouth College, allowed the Kings to enter down the right aisle and enter the stage from the side. I remember this entrance direction in other productions, notably at Clark University; I have never seen the action blocked by the Kings' robes in the past.
Susan McGuire, wife of "King Melchior," fulfilled requirements for costumes that could not be rented from Raleigh Creative Costumes. A father/son team, Stuart Jones, Sr., and Stuart Jones, Jr., created the intentionally spare yet attractive set. It may be that the foresighted, frugal church team did not stain the plywood and the posts in order to be able to recycle the wood for more critical needs after the play. I missed the dark look of other sets. The star was a vision of loveliness, its credit anonymous. A blue light at stage-ceiling height served as the evening sky, but the beautiful star was not illuminated of itself as would have been possible if, for instance, a Moravian star had been used.
"All That Gold" was sung with superior strength and conviction by Conley. She really did it justice, and if there had been offering plates at the back of the hall, they would surely have been filled.