Amahl and the Night Visitors, a production of Marble City Opera and Cathedral Arts, has one final performance on Sunday afternoon, December 10, at 3:00 PM at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, 413 Cumberland Avenue, Downtown Knoxville.
In the first decade following its premiere on television on Christmas Eve in 1951, productions of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s incredibly popular one-act opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, seemed to be everywhere—schools and churches, amateur community theatres, as well as in professional opera houses. That’s not the case 60 years or so later, all the more reason to catch Marble City Opera’s cheerful and charming production at St. John’s Cathedral. Its story of an impoverished, crippled shepherd boy, his mother, and the boy’s selfless act that is rewarded with a miracle has had a timeless appeal. However, the libretto’s side story of extreme wealth versus extreme poverty took on a particularly striking and timely meaning for an audience in December of 2017.
Menotti took a circuitous route with his fictional story around an overtly religious message, despite the fact that the premise involves the three kings of legend, following the star of Bethlehem, stopping off to rest on their way to visit the newborn Jesus. Menotti, as librettist, and director James Marvel, used theatrical license liberally, often with smile-inducing comedic touches to cover for the necessarily abbreviated nighttime visit.
Marvel’s staging, amidst the solidity of the Cathedral’s stone and wood, was inventive and natural, using minimal props and the environment of the church nave as assets. The cathedral’s aisle served as a majestic entrance and exit for the kings; a free-standing doorway set up the opera’s funniest sight-gag, that of the prone-to-fibbing Amahl answering the knock on the door, then having to tell his unbelieving mother that three kings were outside. The only real downside to the church locale was its natural reverberation, an issue made mostly irrelevant by the singers’ excellent diction and projected super-titles.
During his lifetime, Menotti was quite insistent that a boy soprano always be cast in the role of Amahl. Although that was the case in MCO’s 2015 production, and the intention in this production, circumstances forced otherwise. Stepping into the role on short notice, Kathryn Shepas was a delightful Amahl. Her voice—light, gorgeously crystal clear, and agile—was perfect for the role. Equally engaging was her energetic and sparkling portrayal of the shepherd boy as a genuinely optimistic, open-hearted, if comically mischievous, child.
Lindsey Fuson, a soprano blessed with both stunning vocal power and clarity, was marvelous as Amahl’s mother. In addition to her empathy and strength, Fuson gave the aria “All that Gold,” the work’s shrewdly subtle indictment of wealth inequality, a bittersweet timeliness for 2017 audiences.
Breyon Ewing (King Kaspar), Brandon Gibson (King Melchior), and Daniel Webb (King Balthazar) supplied Amahl’s comic twist, never mind that all three are substantial vocal talents. Ewing gave King Kaspar’s “This is my box” a marvelous turn. Comic relief was also supplied by Brad Summers as the Page in a portrayal chock full of stumbling, bumbling, and giggle-producing comic details.
Menotti’s score—solidly contemporary, but poignantly lyrical—was handled skillfully by conductor Ace Edewards and his fourteen member instrumental ensemble. Sonic balance and musical texture are everything in this work—particularly in a resonant environment such as St. John’s—something for which Edewards and ensemble deserved their applause.
Marble City Opera’s season continues in 2018 with a world premier of Follow Suit (music by Griffin Candey and libretto by Emily Anderson) and Postcard from Morocco by Dominick Argento.