Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 1998
In what is becoming a holiday tradition, local artists have once again staged "Amahl and the Night Visitors" in Venable Hall on the MCLA campus as part of the Smith House Concert series. It is a shame that the seats were so very bare on opening night last night, because this is a real gift from the college to the community, and one which deserves more support than it appears to be receiving.
Amahl and the Night Visitors is a rarity among operas. It was written in the 20th century (1951), in English, for television, and it runs only an hour. The author, Gian Carlo Menotti, says that he wrote it for children in an effort to recapture his own childhood in Italy. It was not Santa Clasu that brought the Christmas gifts in Menotti's village, but the three kings. And it was on this memory that he based this charming tale of a poor, crippled shepherd boy and his widowed mother visited one night by those three monarchs of legend as they follow the Christmas star.
It is unfortunate that nine-year-old Kyle Barry of Pittsfield, who plays Amahl in the MCLA production, is not at all up to the vocal demands of the role. I sat in the second row and had trouble hearing him. This drawback makes the early minutes of the show less entertaining than they could be, but what Barry lacks in volume he makes up for in energy and presence. He is a talented young man.
He is ably supported throughout the show by the marvelous Ariel Halverson as his mother. Halverson, a professional singer who also bears the title of cantor in one of her other lives, is deeply moving as Amahl's poor widowed mother. She brought me to tears in the second act when she struggles with her desire to steal some of the kings' gold to help her crippled son.
The entire show comes to life when the three kings enter. Keith Kibler as Melchoir, Richard Miller as Kaspar, and Duane Lee as Balthazar look and sound regal indeed, and bring great energy to their individual characters. They are the kings of a childs imagination, and the scene in which Amahl asks them no end of silly questions is delightful.
Ryan Barry rounds out the cast as the kings' page. Like his younger brother, he has good stage presence and energy. Director and producer Alice Jenkins obviously had great rapport with her cast to get them to deliver such uniformly charming performances.
The costumes by Jenkins and Robert Boland are perfect - ragged but serviceable for Amahl, his mother, and their shepherd neighbors, and sumptuously royal for the kings and their page. It is a great pity that choreographer Susan Hakes was allowed to costume her six dancers herself. Their costumes clash and have none of the style that Jenkins and Boland have worked hard to create. I found the dance equally jarring. While Hakes has trained her dancers well, her own choreography seems disconnected from both the plot and Menotti's music.
No one is given direct credit for the small and professional looking set, although I strongly suspect it is the work of Andrew Hoar, the scenic artist behind most MCLA productions, who is billed as both stage manager and technical director.
I took my notoriously wiggly ten year old son with me to see Amahl and he was a charmed as I was with the production. At just an hour, it is an ideal introduction to opera for young children, all of whom can relate to Amahl's antics and his relationshipship with his mother. This is a timeless and delightful holiday treat for all ages.
"Amahl and the Night Visitors" runs tonight at 8 PM and tomorrow at 2 and 8 PM in the Venable Theatre on the MCLA campus in North Adams. Tickets, at $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and students, or $3 for groups of 10 or more, may be purchased at the Pittsfield Community Music School, 30 Wendell Avenue or the McClellands Hallmark Stores on Main Street in North Adams and Spring Street in Williamstown. For more information, call (413) 662-5201.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998