This was the tenth presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors by the Opera Theatre of the School of Music of the University of North Carolina Greensboro. The presence of many of the production’s past singers or covers of the role of Amahl added to the sense of family and home-coming in this welcome return of Gian Carlo Menotti’s miracle opera for children. Some of the composer’s most touching phrases are found in this brief opera’s score, and director David Holley, also wearing the hats of conductor and producer, brought out all of their charm.

Dancers, musicians, and singers had all their parts down pat for the last of three public and three educational performances. Holley’s ad hoc orchestra consisted of some of the finest faculty and area free lance players. With the instrumentalists seated in renovated Aycock Auditorium’s wonderful new orchestra pit, the balance between the musicians with the stage was ideal. Holley maintained close co-ordination between the singers and the instrumental support. The pure sound of Amahl’s flute was beautifully played by oboist Thomas Pappas. Chorus master Garret Saake had prepared the chorus of shepherds and their families very well. The diction and phrasing were excellent. Having the final chorus performed from high off the balcony seating was a delightful and imaginative touch. Dancers J. Anton Hough, Samantha Steffen, and Karena Thacker were choreographed effectively by Kerrie-Jean Hudson. The unit set, walls suggesting a wretched hut, a suggestion of a distant hill town, and a night sky dominated by the brilliant Star of the East continues to serve the action well. All of this was enhanced by James R. Hullihan’s lighting design.

The outstanding dramatic and vocal performance was given by mezzo-soprano Katherine Jackson, who sang with intensity and evenly controlled power. She fully conveyed the anguish of her desperate economic situation and easily filled the hall vocally. (CVNC reviewed her in the role of Carmela in Opera Carolina’s January 25, 2007, performance of La Vida Breve of Manuel de Falla.) Boy soprano Eli Whitehouse had the innocent piping sound Menotti conceived and sang with good intonation, but his voice was amplified and too often came from the speaker array hanging over the stage, depending on whether he was facing the listener or not.

The richly costumed Three Kings were portrayed by tenor Charles Williamson, Jr. (as the deaf King Kaspar), bass Edward Vaughn Clegg (Balthazar), and baritone Ishan Arvell Johnson (in the more vocally extended role of Melchoir). Williamson and Clegg brought out the humor in their roles and Johnson brought the proper gravitas and forgiving grace to the dominant king. The thankless role of the kings’ Page who catches the mother’s theft was performed well by tenor David Clark. The role gives little scope to judge vocal quality. (CVNC reviewed him in another such role, the Priest in East Carolina University’s unique staging of Dialogues of the Carmelites of Francis Poulenc, on March 11, 2005.)

When David Holley joined the faculty in 1992-93, he found fellow faculty member William McIver had been the second person to sing the role of Amahl in the NBC television broadcasts 1952-55). Needing another opera to make fuller use of singers, Holley convinced McIver to direct an annual production of the opera. Their proposal to the Musical Arts Guild led to funding for scenery, costumes, and other production costs. Amahl was done annually from 1993-96 and has been done biennially since 1998. School matinees were begun in 1995. Holley reports that this year’s students came “from as far away as Dry Fork, Virginia, Mt. Airy, Candor, Jonesville, Haw River, Pittsboro, Asheboro, Lexington, as well at the Guildford County schools, private schools (Caldwell Academy, St. Pius X Catholic School, New Garden Friends School, etc.) and the Guildford Home School Association.” Continuing, he reports, “We had 1,576 on Thursday morning and 1,535 on Friday morning and we had an additional performance at 12:15 on Thursday afternoon with 600+ in attendance. “

UNC Greensboro’s Opera Theatre Will Test Renovated Aycock Auditorium with Amahl and the Night Visitors

by William Thomas Walker

November 20, 2008, Greensboro, NC: Starting Friday, November 21, and continuing through Sunday, November 23, three performances of Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) will inaugurate the greatly expanded stage facilities of the newly renovated Aycock  Auditorium. The Opera Theatre of the School of Music of the University of North Carolina Greensboro will perform. Director David Holley informs us he will use the unit set he has used in past productions so little demand will be made on the new stage loft, but singers and musicians will bask in new, spacious dressing rooms located under the stage and dynamic balances between the singers and the orchestra ought to benefit from the new orchestra pit which, in its lowered position, has the brass and percussion under the stage.

Menotti wrote, “This is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood. In Italy, instead of Santa Claus, gifts were brought by the Three Kings.” Among the extensive quotations in The Stages of Menotti by John Ardoin, the composer said, “I actually never met the Three Kings. But I do remember hearing them…, the weird cadence of their songs…, the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.” Menotti was always notoriously late in fulfilling his commissions, and his 1951 commission from the National Broadcasting Company was no exception. The deadline was close, and he did not have an idea for the television opera. One November afternoon, he was wandering through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By chance he stopped before The Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch. Menotti’s childhood memories suddenly flooded in, along with their vivid sonic recollection. Ardoin writes “Amahl poured from him in an amazing burst of creative energy, and it remains one of his most securely crafted, affecting, and concentrated works. It is a masterful blend of naiveté and sophistication …simplicity and artfulness.” The world premiere telecast took place December 24, 1951. Amahl is the composer’s most popular opera and is the most frequently performed opera in the United States of America.

While the real-world setting of Amahl is what is now called Israel, Menotti always conceived the action taking place in a Neapolitan crèche scene, with the stage divided between the interior — the virtually bare room of the poor shepherd’s hut — and the surrounding countryside. The characters are dressed anachronistically in medieval clothing. The night sky is dominated by the Star of the East, which the Three Kings are following. The ragged clothing of Amahl and his mother provide stark contrast to the resplendent robes of the Three Kings and their page. Amahl, the crippled shepherd boy, and his mother are visited by the Three Kings who are following the Star to find the Messiah. After a theft is forgiven, Amahl offers his crutch to the Kings for the Child. Miraculously, he is able to walk, and he accompanies the Kings on their way to Bethlehem.

This faith-based opera, with its miraculous healing, rivals Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker for performing groups at every level, from community and education-based ensembles to professional opera companies. This perennial Christmas favorite is as beneficial for its audiences as it is for its performers.

UNCG’s Opera Theatre is among the most innovative and dynamic in our state, so attendees may be assured of superior quality, now augmented by the superior technical and acoustical amenities provided by Greensboro’s gem of a theatre.

For more information on the performances, see our Triad calendar.