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Gian Carlo MENOTTI (1911-2007)
Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) [49:05]
My Christmas (1987) [12:31]
Ike Hawkersmith (treble) – Amahl
Kirsten Gunlogson (mezzo) – Mother
Dean Anthony (tenor) – King Kaspar
Todd Thomas (bar) – King Melchior
Kevin Short (bass-bar) – King Balthazar
Bart LeFan (bar) – Page to the Kings
Members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus and Chicago Symphony Chorus
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Alastair Willis
rec. Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Centre, Nashville, Tennessee, USA; December 2006 (Amahl), November 2007 (My Christmas)
NAXOS 8.669019 [61:36]
Experience Classicsonline

Menotti’s seasonal opera gets a welcome outing on Naxos with an all-American cast who give superb commitment to the score. The end product is very satisfying and a welcome addition to the work’s discography.
Italian-born Menotti spent most of his career in the United States and he is most renowned for his operatic work.  Amahl is the most famous, but he also wrote popular works like The Saint of Bleecker Street together with vehicles for Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo, testifying to how highly regarded he was by singers.  Amahl is his most popular work and has enjoyed the most exposure, written as it was for television.  According to the helpful booklet note for this release it was shown on NBC every year between 1951 and 1966, together with several later productions and some runs on the BBC.  It’s not difficult to explain its popularity: the small cast, unassuming stage requirements and seasonal appeal make it practical, while its music is remarkably lyrical for a post-war opera, and has all the attractiveness of a festive treat.
The story is straightforward: Amahl is a crippled boy who has problems with telling the truth.  He lives in poverty with his mother near Bethlehem.  One night they are visited by the three kings on their way to see the Christ-child.  Amahl’s mother is tempted to steal some of their gold to help provide for the family, but when she is caught the kings forgive her because the child they are going to see has no need of earthly treasures.  Amahl gives his crutch to the kings as a gift for the child and he is miraculously healed in consequence.  During the final moments he leaves with the kings to go and worship the child.
Menotti’s achievement is to tell the story without lapsing into sentiment.  He unstintingly portrays the desperate poverty of their circumstances, while contrasting this with the child-like optimism of Amahl himself.  The atmosphere of a hot middle-eastern night is conveyed effectively too through, for example, Amahl’s shepherd pipes which open the piece and which are heard at various points throughout.  The rustic dance which the shepherds put on to entertain the kings paints a good scene, as does the oriental march which accompanies the kings’ first appearance.  He also uses operatic conventions convincingly: Amahl has to re-visit the door various times to convince his mother that the kings are outside. The repetitions this involved reinforce the musical and dramatic themes of the moment.  If the miracle scene at the end feels a bit peremptory then it rises to a convincing climax and prepares for a warmly satisfying conclusion.
The all-American cast are clearly fully convinced by this work and they give their all in performance.  No libretto is provided in the booklet, but the diction is so good that you won’t need it.    As Amahl, Ike Hawkersmith is a strong vocal presence and his characterisation changes convincingly from a somewhat irritating brat to a believer stirred by his experiences.  His aria about the family’s poverty (track 10) is very poignant, as is the scene where his mother later likens him to the Christ child (track 14).  Kirsten Gunlogson is suitably waspish as Mother, while she too is transformed into a convincing penitent after the theft scene.  The kings are all taken well, especially Kevin Short who brings an authoritative grandeur to his role as “the black King” (Amahl’s words).  The contributions of the chorus are expertly judged: the Shepherds’ roundel is very attractive because no-one takes themselves too seriously and everyone is convinced to act their part.  The orchestra pares down its textures very fittingly, held together capably by Alastair Wills, and the sound is immediate and close without being intrusive.
My Christmas is a rather sentimental setting for chorus of some of Menotti’s own words.  There isn’t much to it, but its textures are appealing: the chorus are accompanied by flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, harp and double bass, with a touching restraint at its climax.
Naxos have done well to bring such a strong performance to the catalogue at budget price.  It all adds up to a fine seasonal treat to be enjoyed with a cup of mulled wine and a mince pie.
Simon Thompson


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