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The ArtsCenter is hosting Long Leaf Opera's venerable production of Menotti's Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. It's been done, LLO's director and spokesperson Geoffrey Zeger told us, across seven seasons, in various venues. With its corner stage, ramped entrance, and broad U-shaped pit, the intimate theatre that is the ArtsCenter's main venue is ideally suited for this work and this production. The opera will be performed again from December 16-18 and then, according to LLO Music Director Benjamin Keaton, retired. Folks who have seen and loved this production in the past - or folks who have yet to experience the magic and delight of this famous operatic tale - are therefore urged to make plans now to attend one of the last four presentations. See the sidebar for details.
The story is of a poor, crippled boy, living with his mother among shepherds, whose home is visited by the magi on their way to see the Christ-child. Amahl offers up his crutch as a gift to the Child, is cured of his affliction, and joins the Three Kings on their journey to Bethlehem. The story is enriched with forgiveness and generosity on several levels. For many - including this music lover - this is the ideal holiday work, particularly for young people. Its universal message never fails to move its hearers, it is compact and concise, and it can withstand bare-bones presentations with less-than-stellar singers and still succeed with the public.
For the current run, the orchestra consists of piano - Jon Latané - and oboe - Nancy Wilson. The latter instrument added color in key moments, but the piano carried most of the instrumental load. Maestro Keaton conducted, keeping the work moving nicely and cuing the singers. The principals were boy soprano Aaron Pankey as Amahl, and Emily K. Bryne, an impressive vocalist, as his Mother. The kings were Carl Johnson (Kaspar), Robert Weston Williams (Melchior), and Thomas Emerson Link (Balthazar). The page was the ever-reliable Shiangtai Tuan. Eight shepherds and shepherdesses and three dancers rounded out the cast.
Among the credited staff the name Randolph Umberger loomed large -- the company's long-time artistic director passed away in October, but his fingerprints are all over this production, from various elements of stage business to the lovely costume designs (realized by David Serxner). The set was by Doris Schneider, the lighting, by Chris Ball (it seemed a bit dark, most of the time - the hall itself is done up in flat black, so over-lighting may be necessary…), and the choreography was by Boleyn Willis--Zeger.
Bryne, as the Mother, was the show's unifying force in the vocal department. Pankey made the most of his key moments - the business with the kings at the door was particularly successful. Carl Johnson's Kaspar has long dominated LLO's kingly trio - he is of course the most endearing of the three, and that bandaged finger and the licorice in the box's third drawer always appeal to young people. The small chorus did its work effectively and effectively filled the small stage.
Singers coming into the hall via the audience entrance may wish to moderate their vocalism while passing the patrons; otherwise balances were excellent, projection was consistently good, and diction was clear from all members of the cast.
It was good, overall, and it was good, too, to revisit this special work, in this special production, polished and seasoned over the years by Keaton and Umberger and Company.
As we said at the outset, "Last call!" It's well worth the trip.
I beg the indulgence of readers for a personal note, for Amahl has played a large role in my musical life since childhood. No, I never sang it, but I became familiar with it early on, under circumstances that may amuse some people.
I had begun to wonder about the whole Santa thing when we lived in a duplex with a floor furnace and a tiny exhaust flue - how could the Fat Man get through that pipe, I wondered. Still, it was too much of a good thing to write off completely…, so I made another request - on my list, along with the customary (in our home) silver dollar, were anchovies (yes) and Spike Jones' recording of the Nutcracker Suite - although I knew my parents were sick to death of little-boy silliness (which is, as everyone knows, far more noxious than little-girl silliness).... You may imagine my consternation when, instead of the City Slickers, I got RCA's then fairly new recording of Amahl and the Night Visitors. It was proof that Santa was, at best, a bait-and-switch artist.
Time passed, and eventually I heard the Spike Jones set. It isn't very good, to tell the truth. But Amahl took hold, and I love it to this day. They were right, after all, as was so often the case, so thanks, Mom & Dad - & Santa - and, once more, Long Leaf Opera.