Comfort, charm abound in `Amahl'

Opera: The nave of Emmanuel Episcopal Church resounds with Menotti's `Amahl and the Night Visitors.'

January 05, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

On Christmas Eve, 50 years ago, the first opera expressly written for television was broadcast by NBC, which commissioned it. Today, you couldn't get a commercial TV network to air an opera, let alone pay to have it composed, if your life depended on it.

Well, times may have changed, but Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors hasn't. It remains as endearing as it was to that first viewing public, and it's one of the most frequently performed operas in the world. Something about its simplicity and directness, its message of hope and faith, still strikes a comforting chord.

Amahl is usually encountered earlier in the Christmas season, but its plot about the Three Kings and a poor crippled child makes it apt for the Feast of the Epiphany, which is when Opera Vivente has timed its first production of the work.

Last night's opening performance in the elegant nave of Emmanuel Episcopal Church served Menotti's gentle creation well.

There were just a few props, including a star atop a pole (curiously red in color), and no sets; the costumed characters use the altar space and the aisles. The production suggested a live-action creche, which is appropriate - Menotti had in mind the carved Nativity sets he saw in his native Italy as a youth when he was working on Amahl.

Any production of this delicate work depends largely on the boy soprano in the role of Amahl. Opera Vivente is fortunate to have 12-year-old Joshua Cooper.

His light, clear voice negotiated most of the music easily; his acting was free of self-consciousness. Cooper gave one of the opera's most touching moments - when Amahl asks Kaspar if there might be a cure for him in the king's jeweled box - a beautifully understated delivery.

Soprano Jennifer Blades, as Amahl's mother, colored her phrases affectingly and produced a warm, well-focused tone. She and Cooper blended sweetly in their little duets, making much of both Menotti's words and music.

The kings - Robert Cantrell (Balthazar), John Weber (Kaspar) and Brendan Cooke (Melchior) - formed a solidly matched set of firm voices, sensitive musicians and charming actors. They excelled at the haunting line, "Have you seen a child the color of earth, the color of thorn?"

Ryan Gholson provided solid support as the Page. The dancers, choreographed by Jodi Segal, nimbly executed their folk steps. The chorus produced a smooth, expressive blend.

Intonation slips aside, the orchestra was an asset. Conductor Aaron Sherber held things together for the most part and tapped the score's lyrical power. Better balance between instruments and voices would have been welcome; several lines were drowned out in the reverberant acoustics. (Other lines were lost because of indistinct articulation from some of the singers.)

John Bowen's fluid direction combined pageantry and traditional opera staging, literalness and suggestion. The use of the chorus during the shepherds' scene was particularly effective, with the singers entering and departing off to one side of the church, carrying candles to read their music.

Norah Worthington's costumes gave the royal trio a sumptuous presence, underlining the contrast with Amahl's lowly station.

Opera Vivente

What: Opera Vivente presents Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors

Where: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.

When: 3 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $20, $15 for students and seniors

Call: 410-547-7997

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