Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors looks like a work from another era, and not just because it takes place on the night of the Nativity 2,000 years ago. NBC commissioned the short opera, which was broadcast live in 1951. It’s difficult to imagine one of today’s networks broadcasting a live, original opera, even one in English.
Theatrical Outfit teams up with the Georgia State University school of music to produce a modest but enjoyable version of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a production that greatly benefits from offering an alternative to the perennial holiday plays. In an isolated corner of the Holy Land, disabled Amahl (Ruben Roy) lives in poverty with his worried mother (Jenny Kim). Amahl maintains such imaginative optimism, he expects great things to happen if he and his mom have to resort to begging for food.
Instead, a Christmas miracle appears in the form of the three Magi (Dan Altman, Brendan Callahan-Fitzgerald and Gerald Yarbray), who seek shelter at Amahl’s home. Amahl features some humor up front, such as his mother’s skepticism when the boy informs her that not one, not two, but three kings are knocking at the door in the middle of the night. Amahl and half-deaf King Kaspar (Callahan-Fitzgerald, hamming it up) have a brief bit of vaudeville-style shtick involving a parrot.
Directed by W. Dwight Coleman, Amahl features different performers for different productions. At Saturday’s matinee, the standout was Kim, whose soaring soprano seemed worthy of a choir of angels. Unfortunately, Roy’s vocal limitations are more apparent by comparison. Though he has a sweet voice and a likeable presence, he had trouble sustaining some of Amahl’s notes. Yarbray’s baritone provided the musical foundation of the trio of Magi, and resounded almost like the overtone singing often associated with Tibetan monks. Menotti composes lovely melodies but they don’t linger long in the memory.
One of Amahl’s most musically rich moments occurred when a chorus of at least a dozen shepherds entered with food, although the subsequent dance number felt like padding in a show barely 45 minutes long. Amahl’s ideal target audience may be families eager to introduce children to opera (although pre-schoolers might be a little young for it). Kids will identify with the protagonist, who shares traits with Tiny Tim and the title role of the Rankin/Bass “Little Drummer Boy” special. And if the show kindles an appreciation of opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors could be a gift that keeps giving.