Amahl and the Night Visitors, an opera in one act, was
commissioned by NBC as an opera for television, receiving its
first performance on Christmas Eve, 1951. Unsurprising, then,
that the composer should choose a seasonal story. The young
boy Amahl lives with his widowed mother somewhere along the
route taken by the Three Kings. In the opening scenes we learn
that he is no different from many children - capable of mischief
and something of a dreamer - except that he can walk only with
the aid of a crutch. We also learn that they are very poor.
His mother doesn’t believe his stories of the wondrous
star, nor, later, when he answers a knock at the door, of the
three regal visitors waiting outside. She eventually welcomes
them, however, and calls upon her shepherd neighbours to bring
food and gifts. As night falls and the Kings sleep before their
onward journey, she is tempted to steal some of the gold they
carry with them, a gift for the infant child they are seeking.
She is caught red-handed by the Page, but Melchior tells her
to keep what she has taken, as the new-born will build a kingdom
based on love. Hearing this, she returns the gold, and Amahl
offers his crutch as a gift. The opera closes as the Kings depart.
Amahl, miraculously healed, goes with them to give thanks to
the child in person.
It is easy to imagine how effective and affecting the work must
have been. The story is a sentimental one, but who can resist
a bit of sentimentality at Christmas? Menotti wrote the libretto
himself, and some of the imagery is a bit ropy, but quite a
bit of action is packed into three quarters of an hour, and
the opera’s pacing is excellent. There are many lovely
moments. Amahl’s comforting little song to his mother
(track 3) about having to go begging is charming, and the King’s
“Good evening!” when the exasperated Mother eventually
opens the door to them herself is a delicious coup de théâtre.
The Kings explain to the Mother why they are following the star
in a quartet that rises to genuine eloquence (track 8), and
much of the Shepherds’ music is delightful, especially
their offerings to the Kings and the Kings’ slightly crackpot
There have been other recordings of this opera but I haven’t
heard them. This performance is given by the original television
cast, and they are all excellent, though a contemporary cast
would probably assume the roles in a less overtly “operatic”
manner. Chet Allen if very fine, and his words are remarkably
clear. This is just as well, as the booklet contains a detailed,
track by track synopsis but no libretto.
I haven’t heard the original LPs, but I suspect producer
Mark Obert-Thorn has worked miracles with them. A note in the
booklet explains the limitations of the original material, and
there are certainly moments, particularly in the later scenes,
where the sound is none too pleasant. Thomas Schippers, who
championed the composer, conducts a brisk performance.
Menotti’s ballet, Sebastian, was first produced
in New York in 1944. The Suite recorded here is in six
sections played without a break. There are a few oriental touches,
not unlike those to be found in Amahl, and which presumably
refer to the title character who is a Moorish slave. His name
is well chosen: he dies following multiple arrow shots which
he has contrived to receive in place of the intended victim,
the woman he loves with no hope of a future. He thus selflessly
saves her life, leaving the way clear for another suitor. The
music is immediately attractive, and though there are dramatic
passages, it is melodious and graceful to the point that one
is surprised to read the rather bloodthirsty and dramatic scenario.
Like Amahl, it is highly tonal, the only real excursion
into chromaticism coming, rather predictably, in the movement
entitled “Street Fight”. The final section, “Pavane”,
is particularly attractive, with some individual and surprising
melodic turns. The performance seems to be a fine one, as one
would expect from members of the Philadelphia Orchestra - merry
men, all - under Mitropoulos.