Between a revue of holiday carols and a fine staging of Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, members of the opening night audience in the Arts Council Theatre had their Christmas spirit recharged. Free homemade cookies and punch and a large group of young guitarists helped to mitigate a too-long wait in line in the lobby. This marked the first collaboration between the Piedmont Opera Company and the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem and began a run of seven performances. A note in the program announced that the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources has chosen Piedmont Opera as one of four arts organizations to travel the state presenting programs to children in grades 3 through 5. The other three are Opera Carolina, Carolina Ballet, and North Carolina Dance Theater.
The Miracle of Christmas, a musical review of holiday carols and traditions, is credited to Katty Smith. The nearly 40 minute sequence featured soprano Rebecca Shorstein, alto Emme Hall, tenor Paul Baswell, and bass Chase Taylor, ably accompanied on piano by Mary Ann Bills. Lively banter and comedic schtick were woven around carols ranging from Medieval England to mid-20th-century chestnuts. The four did a successful gospel rendition about the star of Bethlehem, and I will never think of the Wassail carol ("Grog for the poor") the same way again. Every now and then, Shorstein let go with the full power of her well-trained dramatic soprano. Hall, currently getting her MFA in Costume Technology at the NCSA, sang with a voice experienced in cabaret. Light tenor Baswell is a second-year voice major at the NCSA. Both he and Taylor showed a flair for comedy. Firm voiced Taylor had the same fine diction as his colleagues. The review could benefit from a judicious trim as the last quarter seemed to flag or drag.
Menotti has written that Amahl "is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood." In Italy, gifts are left by the Three Kings, not Santa Claus. Chapter six of The Stages of Menotti by John Ardoin reveals that some of the personal characteristics of each king in the opera come from the imaginings of Menotti's little brother. He was convinced that King Kaspar was "a little crazy and quite deaf." That explained why King Kaspar "never brought him all the gifts he requested." King Melchior was Menotti's childhood favorite. While he never managed to see the Three Kings, he "remember(s) hearing them... [and] the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance."
As an opera composer, Menotti has never been one to finish a score on time. In 1951 he was stuck with a commission from NBC Television with a Christmas deadline and he had no idea for the opera. Walking through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art one November (!) afternoon, he stopped by chance in front of The Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch. All those childhood Christmas memories came back and "suddenly (he) heard the weird song of the Three Kings." The result is his tightly organized miracle play cum opera.
The Magi or the Three Kings, following the Star of Bethlehem, seeking to honor the Christ-child, visit a desperately poor widow and her imaginative crippled son. The mother is tempted to steal a gold coin and is forgiven by the Magi. Hearing the wonder of the Savior's birth, the mother wishes she had something to give, too. Her son offers his crutch and miraculously is able to step forward, his lame foot healed. He joins the kings' journey.
James Albritten directed a beautifully balanced and phrased performance. His talented pit musicians were not identified in the program, but their playing was expert and expressive. The important oboe part, Menotti's original folk-like drone evoking the sheep-less shepherd boy's pipe, was given just the right blend of simplicity and sophistication.
There was nothing routine in the Piedmont Opera's selection of cast. An expressive face combined with fine intonation helped Jesse Sykes*, a member of the Winston-Salem Children's Chorus, flesh out the role of Amahl. His pitches were so right I thought of the piping of a chamber organ or a pan flute. He remembered which foot was lame (Remember Chester on TV's Gun Smoke?) His expressions as he looked out to see more and more kings outside the door were priceless. Mezzo-soprano Cristy Lynn Brown sang the role of the Mother with a solid and robust voice. She fully conveyed the pathos of the widow's situation, a disastrous slide toward beggary. Baritone Robert Overman brought great gravitas and magnanimity to the role of King Melchoir. With its beautiful and even balance, his voice easily filled the hall. Tenor Jonathan Sidden combined comic timing with a warm timbre to bring King Kaspar to life. It was delightful finally to see baritone John Williams, the solid anchor of many an oratorio or choral works throughout the Piedmont, in an opera; he brought good-humored grace to the role of King Balthazar. Bass Chase Taylor's role as the Page was only to stand and wait until the mother steals a coin. He gave the role all that was needed. Most of the cast have been praised in CVNC for their work in previous opera productions. There was a mix of adults and children in the chorus of shepherds; the singers were well prepared, and their onstage business and blocking by Stage Director Steven La Crosse was excellent. His direction of the entire cast kept the drama fully focused.
The set, designed by Bland Wade and lighted by Dean Wilcox, was delightful. The gorgeous night sky with its myriad stars and the Christmas Star was truly magical. The shepherd's village was as attractive as it was functional.
Menotti has said that, to him, "cinema, television, and radio seem rather pale substitutes for the magic of the stage." Piedmont Opera's Amahl was my first live experience of the opera. I had seen a number of TV broadcasts over the years and have heard the classic RCA-BMG CD of the classic 1952 recording of the opera conducted by Thomas Schippers. This opening night performance was a delight in every way and thoroughly engaging from first note to last, proving the composer's opinion to be true.
Performances continue Dec 8 and 9, see our Triad calendar.
Traffic note: The Arts Council Theatre is close to the intersection of University Parkway and Coliseum Drive. Access is well marked to its 610 Coliseum Drive address. There is parking on the theater's west and south sides. The latter parking lot exits indirectly to University Parkway. You can easily get into the theatre from either direction from Coliseum Drive, but only the southbound lane of University Parkway is readily accessible in heavy traffic and the dark of early evening. Signage is excellent.