Carrboro, NC, home of hand-knit outfits, organic foods, and hipsters galore, is not a place from which one would expect an opera to come, but that is not something that should stop anyone from dropping by! Long Leaf Opera delivered its eighth annual production of Amahl and the Night Visitors this weekend and displayed the high caliber of a down-home family of performers. This opera was written in English by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1951 as a made-for-TV Christmas special. Somehow or another it has not become as popular a Christmas favorite as, say, Messiah or Nutcracker,, but it has the same heartwarming qualities, splendid music, and Christmas miracles that are to be expected this time of year.
Randolph Umberger, co-founder of Long Leaf Opera along with Benjamin Keaton, was memorialized in this production; he passed away in October. Keaton writes in his “Remembrance” of Umberger in the playbill that Long Leaf Opera “was a joint dream in the beginning” and that Keaton “will close Long Leaf Opera at the end of this season” because he “cannot do it without” his “life mate Ranny’s vision and wonderful help.” It is unfortunate to see such a lively opera company like Long Leaf come to a close; after its fourteen seasons, this non-profit company has been a success in the communities of Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Durham.
Amahl and the Night Visitors tells the story of a lame boy and his mother who are visited by the three kings on their way to present their gifts to the newborn Jesus. They stay with Amahl and his mother, testing the mother’s greed of their gold, which she would like to spend to help feed her son. The strength of the mother’s love for her son is highlighted in “All That Gold,” which was one of the best songs of the opera. Emily Byrne, who played Amahl’s mother, is extremely talented and has a knack for singing such passionate, operatic music. The three kings were also very well-trained and, while remaining stately and even sometimes eerie, they provided some comic relief. The kings truly shone in their trios, especially “Have You Seen A Child,” which also featured Amahl’s mother.
Amahl, played by Aaron Pankey, was the star of the night. Pankey is eleven years old and already a professional musician in a teen band. His singing was sweet, soft, and innocent, capturing Amahl’s character impeccably. Oboe player Nancy Wilson, who played the music of Amahl’s shepherd’s pipe, helped add to Amahl’s innocent nature with her lighthearted melodies.
Aside from wonderful musical talent from the whole ensemble, the costuming for this show, designed by the late Randolph Umberger, also served to represent the heart of Carrboro. The hand-painted shepherd’s costumes, knit caps and shawls, and plain-but-spunky sandals reflect pieces of clothing worn by many Carrboro natives on a daily basis – or so it appears, based upon the handmade crafts store located just outside the ArtsCenter!
Amahl and the Night Visitors, although not totally centered around the Christmas story, is a closer look at what happened to the three kings during their journey as well as the strength of the bond between mother and son. Faith, love, and charity are presented in a beautiful musical setting, spreading the joy of the season and the magic of Christmas.
Amahl continues through December 18. For details, see the sidebar.
(For a review of an earlier performance in the current run, click here.)