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It was déjà vu all over again and it wasn't a pleasant thought. The now famous "ice storm of the century" had cancelled schools, businesses, deliveries and many music and theater productions. The big snowstorm of the last century had cut the Triangle Opera's production of Fidelio down to one performance, resulting in financial disaster. Would that be the same fate for the relatively young Long Leaf Opera company?
Fortunately they were able to dodge this icy, dark bullet and reschedule their entire run of Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors to the following weekend. This was no small feat considering the number of cast members and musicians. Recognition should also be given to the administration of North Carolina Central University for being so flexible and allowing use of their University Theatre at previously unscheduled dates.
Amahl, one of the most popular American operas and the first commissioned for television, made its debut on NBC-TV on Christmas Eve, 1951. It quickly became hugely popular and continues to be possibly the most widely performed opera in the world. The central character is Amahl, a crippled boy of about 12 years of age. Having seen the Christmas star, Amahl tries to tell his mother of this vision, only to be accused of lying. A knock on the door introduces us to the appearance of the Three Kings, who have come to seek shelter for the night on their way to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Christ Child. They are given food and shelter, but the mother, envious of the gifts the Kings are travelling with, steals some of their gold. She is caught but pleads for forgiveness, explaining that this was for her poor, starving child. She is told of the newborn Child and is forgiven. Moved by the story of the Christ Child, Amahl offers his crutch as a gift. That gesture of innocent generosity cures him of his affliction and he is invited to accompany the Kings to Bethlehem to give thanks.
The NCCU theatre is rather small but provides a very warm and inviting ambience for a production such as this. There is no orchestra pit so the musicians were seated directly in front of the stage, just inches away from the first row. The trumpet and bassoon players were set off to the right side of the auditorium, while the electric piano and percussion were similarly off to the left. This contributed to some nice effects and gave the excellent orchestra a more spacious sound. The set for the entire production was a very well made and attractive barn-type structure.
I attended the Thursday, December 12, performance, and despite the storm-induced delay and the fact that this was its first full public showing, Amahl received an exceptionally polished and spirited presentation. There were perhaps only about 20 persons in the audience, so it felt more like a run-through for friends than an opening night.
The lead was played by Jacob Boehm, and he provided a well-acted and sung Amahl. Whether it was nerves or his impending voice change, at times it felt like some of the parts were a bit too high, but that is a trifle compared to the total performance. The Mother, played by Denise Payton, had a wonderful stage presence and a big, sonorous voice. The interaction between her and Amahl was sensitive and genuine. The Kings were portrayed by Robert Weston Williams, Carl Johnson, and Henry S. Gibbons.
One of the true stars of this show was the costumes. Special recognition needs to be given to both Randolph Umberger and his assistant Olive McKrell for the very realistic and professional dress design. Especially striking were those of the Three Kings. Their entrance from the rear of the auditorium was especially effective and imposing.
Musically, my only real complaint was with the chorus, which were the Shepherds. It sounded like they could have used some more rehearsals to improve their intonation, and one or two voices noticeably stuck out over the rest of the ensemble. Despite that, the scenes they were involved in were some of the most charming and effective, and they moved around very nicely on a very small stage.
The simplicity and familiarity of the story belies the difficulty and uniqueness of the musical score. Using many of the same musicians as in previous Long Leaf productions, Maestro Benjamin Keaton guided the ensemble through a thoroughly professional reading of a deceptively simple score.
For the sake of opera lovers throughout the Triangle area, we hope that Long Leaf did not take a bad financial blow due to yet another North Carolina weather nightmare. Please turn out and support their future productions.