Gian Carlo MENOTTI (1911-2007)
Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951)* [49:05]
My Christmas (1987)† [12:31]
Amahl – Ike Hawkersmith (treble)
Mother – Kirsten Gunlogson (mezzo)
King Kaspar – Dean Anthony (tenor)
King Melchior – Todd Thomas (baritone)
King Balthazar – Kevin Short (bass-baritone)
Page to the Kings – Bart LeFan (baritone)
*†Members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus/George Mabry
*Members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus/Duain Wolfe
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Alastair Willis (Amahl); George Mabry (My Christmas)
rec. 3-6 December 2006 (Amahl), 17 November 2007 (My Christmas), Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
Libretto not included
Christmas Eve 1951, and the world’s first television opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, is aired in the US. NBC, who commissioned the work, turned it into a festive tradition, screening it every Christmas until 1966. Here in the UK the BBC broadcast a live version in December 1955 and a filmed one in 1959. A third production, directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by the late Richard Hickox, was aired in 2002. The latter would be most welcome on DVD or Blu-ray, as Hickox never got round to recording Amahl as part of his Menotti cycle for Chandos. For now this all-American version from Naxos has no rivals, with the exception of the original cast recording – in mono – conducted by Thomas Schippers (RCA Gold Seal 6485).
Menotti’s opera has the usual iconography of Christmas – the star ‘as large as a window and with a glorious tail’, the three Kings bearing gifts and the shepherds – with the crippled boy Amahl recalling Tiny Tim in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. The opera’s narrative, direct and unencumbered, is conveyed in music of great charm and simplicity; just listen to Amahl’s artless pipe-playing at the outset and his wide-eyed wonderment at the strange star in the night sky. Contrast that with the declamatory – and dissonant – piano chords associated with his exasperated mother. It’s a reassuring and familiar scene that also speaks of another – more innocent – age.
The boy treble Ike Hawkersmith is a convincing Amahl, combining good diction with a strong sense of character. Kirsten Gunlogson also makes a good impression as his mother, her voice big but not overwhelmingly so, her delivery clear and even. The recorded sound is very immediate – for that read closely miked – and some listeners may feel it’s a touch too bright. On the plus side this performance never slides into sentimentality, even when Amahl comforts his distraught mother in ‘Don’t cry, Mother dear’ (tr. 5). Their voices blend reasonably well in the touching ‘good nights’ that follow, the orchestra modulating into a stately, rather exotic, processional that heralds the arrival of the three Kings (tr.6).
Kevin Short has a big, imperious voice that suits the role of Balthazar, rather dwarfing his companions when they sing of their arduous journey. There is more than a hint of the swaying ox-cart of Mussorgsky’s Bydlo in the orchestral accompaniment at this point, a vivid evocation of their long and burdensome trek. The Nashville band’s playing under Alastair Willis is alert and upfront throughout; sample those scurrying pizzicato strings as Amahl tells his mother who is at the door, the Kings’ voices blending in sonorous unison (tr. 8). Their singing surely suggests a distant, churchly chant entirely appropriate to these holy men.
Indeed, Menotti’s score brings together so many different strands and styles in a most original and refreshing way. There’s a perky little march as the visitors enter the hut and simple piano flourishes accompany them as they warm themselves by the fire (tr. 9). The excitable Kaspar – who also happens to be deaf – is well sung by Dean Anthony. Ditto Kevin Short as Balthazar, who responds to Amahl’s cross-questioning with a mixture of patience and weariness (tr. 10). The interaction between Kaspar’s parrot and Amahl injects a note of humour, with King Melchior (Todd Thomas) cranking it up a notch or three as he explains that the mystery box contains all his worldly goods – and his treasured supply of liquorice (tr.11).
The close recording is not a major problem here, although the plucked basses that accompany Amahl’s mother, Melchior and Balthazar in tr. 14 sound jumbo-sized and rather muffled. That said, this trio certainly rises to a powerful climax, from which shepherds – laden with food – take their cue. There’s some lusty a cappella singing here, but the combined Nashville and Chicago choruses are much too close for comfort. However, the sinuous orchestral dance that follows – Boléro, anyone? – is beautifully done, with some delectable playing from the Nashville woodwinds (tr. 18). Balthazar’s thanks and the shepherds’ lyrical farewell are amongst the lovely moments when lingering doubts about this performance are dispelled and all caveats are forgotten. Quite magical.
The mother’s turmoil in tr. 20, as she ponders the Kings’ gold and what it could mean for her and Amahl, is sung with a Janácek-like intensity that reminds me so much of the late – and much lamented – Elisabeth Söderström in Sir Charles Mackerras’s Decca recording of Jenufa. But then Amahl is such an eclectic work, and I daresay most listeners will hear other echoes too. For once the immediacy of this recording pays dividends, adding real frisson to the mother’s anguish and the orchestral set-to that follows when she is caught trying to steal the visitors’ gold (tr. 21). Hawkersmith is most affecting as he vigorously – and physically – defends his mother, his repeated cries of ‘Don’t you dare’ (tr.22) a telling vocal counterpoint to his struggle with the Page.
One of the opera’s most potent messages – that of forgiveness – is brought home by Melchior, who tells Amahl’s mother that she can keep the gold (tr. 23). It is an aria of tenderness and compassion, radiantly scored. The other must surely be selflessness through the act of giving, as epitomised by Amahl’s spontaneous offer of his crutch as a gift to the Christ child. In doing so he finds that he can walk, a moment greeted first with awe and astonishment by the Kings and then with jubilation (tr. 24). The opera moves to a close as Amahl persuades his mother to let him accompany the three Kings to Bethlehem. Gunlogson sings with warmth and affection here, the parting duet accompanied by some of the loveliest music on this disc (tr. 26). The choruses return as the procession – Amahl in tow – resumes its momentous journey.
The Nashville chorus is centre-stage in My Christmas, which Menotti sets to his own texts in 1987. They sound remarkably bold and full-bodied here, their singing interspersed with music of chamber-like proportions. There is much to enjoy here, not least the ecstatic climaxes and Menotti’s unusual orchestration. Listen to the sudden instrumental fragments that recall Britten, and to the rhythms that hint at the Bernstein of Chichester Psalms. That said, the piece has a strong identity of its own, and I can’t imagine why we don’t hear it more. Oh, and a bottle of celebratory brandy for the Nashville horn player who rounds off the work so eloquently.
This Amahl is a real cracker, deserving of its place at the top of the tree. Texts aren’t supplied, but that hardly matters when the diction is this clear. As for the recorded sound it’s a little too bright and forward for my tastes, but that’s easily overcome by tweaking the treble control on your amp.
Dan Morgan
This Amahl is a real cracker … see Full Review