NEW YORK — On Site Opera presents new and old operas in non-conventional venues. For the company’s December production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, artistic and general director Eric Einhorn moved the action from a desert hovel in the Middle East to a soup kitchen in Manhattan. The personnel included both professional soloists and instrumentalists and a chorus of community members who themselves had experienced homelessness. The intimate setting and the poignant and timely updating made for an unusually moving experience.
Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors premiered on Christmas Eve 1951 and became something of a holiday tradition. NBC commissioned the composer to write an opera, but he had trouble coming up with an idea. As Menotti told the story, a ramble through the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art brought him to a painting of the Adoration of the Magi, which reminded him of the Christmases of his childhood in Italy, where presents were brought not by Santa Claus, but by the three kings. So Menotti created a libretto, based on those childhood memories, about a poor shepherd boy and his mother who gave shelter to the three kings on their way to pay homage to the newborn Jesus. The first opera written for American television, it was aired annually until 1966.
On Site’s version was staged Dec. 6-8 at Church of the Holy Apostles, host to the largest soup kitchen operated in Manhattan. While tickets were free — and snapped up within 20 minutes of release online — audience members were asked to bring a food bank donation in lieu of cash. The company also partnered with an organization devoted to combating homelessness, Breaking Ground, which recruited choral singers from among its client community and provided rehearsal space.
At the Dec. 7 performance, when audience members entered the church after depositing their food bank contributions, they encountered what appeared to be the end of the evening meal, with a few regulars lingering around tables near the entrance (the sanctuary is an open space with only a few movable pews). A few rows of chairs surrounded a space toward the front of the church, where three more tables stood. In an alcove to the left, between rows of chairs and the organ console, the 20-piece orchestra was warming up. As seats filled up, a dejected looking woman took a seat at a table up front.
During the wistful overture, she wearily roused herself to pick up a toy left on the floor and then called for her son in a powerful voice that no child would dare ignore. While Amahl’s meekly acquiescent “Very well” might feel dated, and the story felt like a myth, the staging was full of reminders of the harsh realities experienced by the economically precarious in New York today.
The first third of the 50-minute piece establishes the loving but stress-filled relationship between the impoverished widow and her over-imaginative son, who never lets a crippled leg slow him down. As night comes, the homeless mother, in tears over the prospect of having to beg, persuades the security guard to let them stay the night in the dining hall. Hearing a knock at the door, she sends Amahl to see who it is, and she is struck dumb when Amahl’s “tale” that there are three kings at the door turns out to be true — in a manner of speaking.
The three “kings” toddle in, dressed in tattered but flamboyant rags and pushing shopping carts filled with street flotsam and cardboard to sleep upon, vivid examples of a very recognizable New York type of street person (kudos to Jessica Jahn, costumes, and Gabrielle Vincent, makeup). While the chastened mother goes off to fetch friends who might be able to supply refreshments, Amahl quizzes these exotic strangers. The villagers bring gifts — bags of food bank donations — and dance for the strangers, before the kings send everyone home so they can rest before continuing their journey.
At wit’s end, the mother cannot resist stealing the gold the kings are taking to the child, but she is caught, not by the kings, but by the security guard — and anyone lulled by the music and the storytelling is brought back to the modern reality of “broken window” policing. When he threatens the mother, Amahl’s passionate defense puts their plight into perspective for the kings, who tell her that the child doesn’t need it. Amahl offers his crutch as a gift; miraculously, he finds he can walk without it, and he joins the kings’ pilgrimage to offer his gift to the child in person.
Americans old enough to have seen the NBC telecasts probably remember Menotti’s catchy score, but younger music lovers should discover this charming work. The music is tonal, mildly spiced with dissonant or gnarly bits but always singable. The writing for each soloist has a distinctive character, and lyrics and vocal lines lie gracefully in the voice, making the text easy to understand. Frequently, lyrics or musical phrases are repeated in threes, like the structure of a folk tale, creating an expectation of reply or resolution. Strongly rhythmic orchestral pieces and arias scored with orchestra alternate with piano-accompanied recitatives, which sound believably conversational (including some of the only sarcasm I’ve ever heard in opera). It’s accomplished, ingratiating, feel-good music that somehow avoids cheap effects.
The printed program provided only the names of chorus members, with a few short bios, but the temporary anonymity of the performers somehow folded them into community with the audience; I’ve never experienced anything like it. The accomplished and experienced cast was splendid: As the Mother, the sumptuous-voiced soprano Aundi Marie Moore was the emotional heart and anchor of the work. The Three Kings — baritone Daniel Belcher as the leader Melchior, bass Musa Ngqungwana as the dignified Balthazar, and tenor Joseph Gaines as the daffy Caspar — were sonorous and entertaining, both as an integrated ensemble and as distinct individuals.
Amahl, a role always sung by a young boy, was double cast. I heard Luciano Pantano (the alternate is Devin Zamir Coleman), who sang his challenging part with accuracy, true intonation, and endearing soft-grained sweetness. Bass Jonathan R. Green’s Page was more of a security guard than a royal attendant, which smoothed over the scenario’s transition from village to social service agency. The uncredited dancers, with choreography by Winston A. Benons, Jr., provided welcome movement and energy.
The orchestra, members of the American Modern Ensemble, may have lacked the full richness of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra (conducted on the 1951 telecast by Thomas Schippers), but it never sounded thin in the resonant space. Conductor Geoffrey McDonald, with tag-team help from chorus master Michael A. Ciavaglia, minimized ensemble chaos admirably when the singers were spread around the large sanctuary, sometimes even around the corner from one another.
For this production, On Site introduced an app that streamed the libretto to smart phones. Even though the text was in English, the reverberant acoustics and the variable positions of the performers made the back-up titles welcome, and the devices in use weren’t distracting.
To watch the original black-and-white performance from 1951, go here.