Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors was the first opera written specifically for American television, premiering on NBC on Christmas Eve, 1951. It became a Christmas Eve tradition until the mid-60s when, in a dispute, Menotti forbade its production and the opera was not televised again until 1978.
Since then, almost all productions of the 45-minute opera have been live stagings which, interestingly, was the way Menotti himself preferred experiencing it. Menotti may have been partial to seeing Amahl in the theatre, but its intimate nature lends itself well to small-screen presentation. Vancouver Opera’s Amahl premiered online on Dec. 12th–a natural follow-up to their adroit choice of La voix humaine in October.
In the title role, Andreas Dala demonstrated he is as gifted an actor as he is a singer though, at age 14, he’s nearing the end of his boy-soprano days. Several notes at the top of his range eluded him, but Dala had the stage savvy and vocal moxie to soldier on unperturbed and use those fluffed high notes to make his portrayal a little more boyish and vulnerable. His vocal technique was otherwise rock solid, his pitch extraordinarily accurate and his acting skills—from energetic, coltish youth and petulant teenager to resolute young man setting out to fulfill his destiny—truly impressive.
From nagging and distrustful to radiant with selfless love, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Tritchew navigated the arc of the Mother’s emotional journey. She keenly charted her character’s angst in the face of her family’s dire poverty through to acceptance and love as her son heads off with “the three Kings” (the Magi of the Nativity) to follow the star to “the child” (the infant Jesus in Bethlehem).
Costume designer Patrick Rizzotti made some interesting choices: Amahl and his mother certainly looked the parts of impoverished Middle Eastern peasants. But the attire of the Three Kings (tenor Sergio Augusto as Kaspar; baritone Jason Cook as Melchior and bass Michael MacKinnon as Balthazar) did not look at all kingly. Their bearing was regal, however, and they carried gold in quantities that Amahl and his mother could only dream of.
It was Cook as Melchior who delivered the opera’s most pivotal line when he intoned, “Oh, good woman, you may keep the gold,” when the Mother has been caught attempting to steal some of the Kings’ stash. The compassion in Cook’s warm, enveloping baritone as he uttered those lines immediately restored the opera toward its ultimate goal of compassion and forgiveness. As the eccentric Kaspar, Augusto gets the most stage time of the three Kings; he made the most of the role’s amusing comic relief.
Music director Leslie Dala doubled with Coach Tina Chang in the two-piano accompaniment. Dala was not paying mere lip service to the music in his “Highlights from the score” talk on the VO website; he obviously understands the piece from the ground-up. He and Chang realized the score’s expressive requirements with a persuasive, natural flow.
Jeremy Baxter’s lighting design ingeniously used the Chan Centre’s 25-ton overhead canopy to depict the starry Middle-Eastern sky to open the show. Camera work by Collide Entertainment remained fluidly unobtrusive, offering an “actually there” experience.
Given strictures imposed by COVID-19 requirements, staging challenges were considerable but handled with great finesse by director Sarah Jane Pelzer. For instance, although Canadian social distancing requirements are two meters almost nationwide, the Amahl cast had to be three meters apart. A few clearly were not, but in a recorded statement before the show, Pelzer reassured the audience that the cast included “a brother and sister…a couple…and two people who live in the same house” and that those onstage closer than three meters were within COVID-19 requirements.
Rizzotti’s astutely designed sets and Pelzer’s adept direction meant that–even when the entire ten-member cast convened onstage to see Amahl and the three Kings off–the stage looked much more festively crowded than it actually was. And it was all done without flouting COVID-19 requirements.
Such is the magic of stage and camera illusion. I applaud the care and resourcefulness that went into this staging and I don’t think anyone would deny that VO is batting two for two this season so far.
Vancouver Opera Amahl and the Night Visitors is available for streaming with a season subscription here.