On Site Opera 2018-19 Review: Amahl and the Night Visitors
Stirring Food For the SoulBy Julieta Gomez de Mello
Like many who hail from other parts of the world, and like Gian Carlo Menotti himself, some of my earliest and happiest childhood memories are tied to the biblical story of the Three Kings.
In this touching one-act opera originally commissioned for television, Menotti felt inspired to write a work that recaptured his childhood. In essence, the story of ”Amahl and the Night Visitors” is the story of a young disabled and impoverished boy named Amahl who lives with his mother, a widow. Then, one fateful night, Amahl gets a miraculous visit from Three Wise Men that changes his life. But in a larger sense, it’s a story that aims to remind us that the gift of giving can come in many forms, and what director Eric Einhorn brilliantly highlights in this production, is that even the unlikeliest of people can shower us with the blessing of profound compassion and humanity we so desperately need.
Indeed, this contemporary retelling of the holiday classic, which updated the setting from first century Bethlehem to a homeless shelter in modern day New York, and which featured a chorus partly made up of community members who had experienced homelessness, was not only admirably performed, it was food for the soul.
In the Community
In terms of the work itself, it’s easy to see why it’s become such an enduring classic: the sentimental themes of charity and miracles which are at the forefront of the work are perfectly offset by the suave simplicity of the music and the elegantly sparse libretto.
In desiring to also specifically address the issue of homelessness in NYC, On Site Opera staged the performances in the intimate setting of the Holy Apostles Church, with minimal props and principal singers sporting regular street clothes. Near the entrance of the church, a single light shone forward, presumably symbolizing the North Star. At the center of the chapel, where the action took place, were large brown tables one can find in any soup kitchen or shelter. A single prop was laid on the floor: a small superhero action figure, which is only noticed by Amahl’s mother at the very end of the performance in a touching moment of nostalgia. Meanwhile, the audience, seated in close proximity to the action, was interspersed with the chorus and the dancers, which gave the performance an immersive and visceral quality not often experienced in large opera houses.
Although Conductor Geoffrey McDonald and the American Modern Ensemble were in peripheral view, they nevertheless played a key role in the performance’s success. McDonald drew a rousing yet musically sensitive interpretation of Menotti’s melodic score from the ensemble, as well as exceptionally well-sung performances from all of the protagonists.
More than One Star Turn
For the matinee performance I attended of this sorely limited run, Amahl was played by 10-year-old Manhattan native Devin Zamir Coleman. This young boy is not only gifted with a beautiful airy soprano voice, but he is a talented and committed actor perfectly capable of embodying both the wonder and excitement of a child his age yet with an emotional intensity and maturity well beyond his young years. This was most felt during the scene where Amahl’s mother is confronted by the Page for attempting to steal some of the kings’ gold that was meant for the Christ Child. In this production, the Page, sung formidably by Jonathan R. Green, is cleverly turned into a security guard. Despite his physical handicap, Amahl races to him, first pointing his finger sternly, then throwing punches and eventually collapsing into the Page’s arms out of sheer desperation.
Needless to say, there was hardly a dry eye in the audience watching this young boy’s passionate yet totally poised and controlled performance.
Likewise, soprano Aundi Marie Moore was a revelation as Amahl’s mother. Her rich, clarion soprano easily soared through the chapel, though she never sacrificed clarity of the text for beauty of sound. So sincere and enveloping was her performance that you could not only hear the emotional intensity, you could see it in the glint of her eyes. This is a performer with a bright future ahead.
Rounding out the fine cast of principals were tenor Joseph Gaines as Kaspar, South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana as Balthazar, and Grammy winning Baritone Daniel Belcheras Melchior. In this production, Einhorn decided to cast the Three Kings as a scruffy, eccentric trio of homeless vagabonds, and whether it was pushing around a shopping cart or plopping down on pieces of cardboard to read a newspaper, each of them had particular dramatic quirks that really made their individual characters come to life. It must also be said that portraying the Three Kings as three very likeable yet very downtrodden and marginalized people added a layer of humanity and depth to their ultimate decision of bequeathing the gold, or in this case money, to Amahl and his mother, because it showed that nothing is more precious than the sense of belonging we experience when we engage in selfless acts of giving.
It also helped that these three characters were portrayed by real singing actors. As Kaspar, Gaines was energetic and over-the-top in a very childlike way; his rendition of the aria “this is my box” was sung with a charming innocence not unlike that of many homeless people you meet on the street.
Musa Ngqungwana’s rich and sonorous voice brought an earthiness to Balthazar that contrasted perfectly with Amahl’s light, angelic flourishes during their back and forth banter, and Daniel Belcher was an austere, yet sensitive and elegant sounding Melchior. His rendition of “Oh, Woman, You Can Keep That Gold,” was a real musical highlight of the performance.
Props are also due to Winston A. Benons Jr.,whose choreography for the dance sequence was refreshingly modern as it blended together more classical dance elements with Afro-Latino techniques.
Last but not least, it was moving to see a chorus of people that really represented an often-times neglected sector of our communities getting to use their voices and be a part of this emotionally wrought performance of a cherished classic. Some of them were merely whispering the music, but the expression on their world-weary faces spoke volumes of how profoundly grateful they were in getting to use their voices to inspire and uplift. All in all, this was as stirring an experience as we ever get from live theater.