Gian Carlo MENOTTI (1911-2007)
Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) [46:25]
Amahl - Chet Allen (boy soprano)
His Mother - Rosemary Kuhlmann (soprano)
Kaspar - Andrew McKinley (tenor)
Melchior - David Aiken (baritone)
Balthazar - Leon Lishner (baritone)
The Page - Frank Monachino (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra/Thomas Schippers
rec. December 1951, New York
Sebastian - Ballet Suite (1944) [16:41]
Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia/Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. 26 July 1946, Academy of Music, Philadelphia
NAXOS 8.111364 [63:06]
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 “thankyou”s.
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.
William Hedley 

A delightful Christmas opera with the original 1951 television cast.