Gian-Carlo Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951)

Opera in one act. Running Time: 45 minutes.

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I actually finished this in October, but I set it up for a scheduled posting now because it is probably more seasonally appropriate.

The original 1951 broadcast performance, which for all intents and purposes was the first performance. The opera starts 4:30 into the video (preceded by Menotti’s words to the audience before the performance. It ends at 49:00, followed by a choral number which is not part of the opera itself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlg81twKXbY

SETTING: In and around a 1st century Israeli dwelling. Crippled Amahl and his widowed mum are very poor, but this doesn’t stop the Three Wise Men (Kings) from showing up at their door. After mum gets caught trying to paw some jewelry off of the royals the Baby Jesus (never actually mentioned but it is rather obvious) miraculously heals Amahl and he goes with the Kings on the rest of their journey to Bethlehem.

LOOK OUT FOR:

0: The prelude * is a serene and quiet introduction possessing a Puccini-esque quality (one tune resembles something in La Rondine). It flows immediately into Amahl’s shepherd pipes and the calls of his mother, who orders him into the house with a totally inaccurate description of Israeli weather.

4: Amahl’s description of the Christmas Star * to a sedate harp. His mother replies with despair.

6: Mother tells Amahl off for years of tall-tales, he tries to convince her that this star has a massive tail and swears it. She becomes depressed and he tries to comfort her with descriptions ** of their forming an entertainment act that defies historical continuity (the term ‘gypsy’ did not exist in the first century, and I’m not sure clowns did either).

9: The Chorus of the Three Kings *** comes off almost as spooky as Ad nos, ad salutarem, only more genuine. It certainly wakes up Amahl who discovers that they are at his front door.

12: Mother doesn’t believe him when he says three kings are at the door *. A lot of Mickey-mousing from the upper strings contrasts with the dramatic imploring of Amahl (repeated). Also, why do they make such a show of the fact that Caspar is black? Mother gives Amahl a politically correct talking to, opens the door and sees three kings at the door.

15: The Mother’s address is responded to by the overtly Casper and a jaunty little march *.

17: After inquiring after the royal visitors Amahl goes into a sob story about how miserable his life is * (mum sold the flock, they are very poor, he is crippled and has to hobble around on a crutch for the rest of his life).

19: Casper’s box aria **, the opera’s only real solo number, as he describes the contents of his jewelry box that he carries around with him. Mother returns, tells Amahl to alert the other villagers, and she sees the jewelry box (foreshadowing).

22: The Mother-Kings quartet *** as she starts to believe that the kings are searching for Amahl. Turns strikingly chromatic, possibly the musical climax of the opera.

25, 28: The chorus of shepherds *, the opera’s ultimate filler number. It serves absolutely no dramatic purpose to have all the villagers present offerings to the kings (who “thank you” to a catchy earworm). It is followed by an even more irrelevant (but good) dance *. I wonder, why exactly did the kings pass all these people’s houses to go to Amahl and his mother’s shack, they are kings after all no? It is followed by a catchy “good-night” ensemble.

33: After a brief entr’acte, based on the prelude, Mother fantasizes about taking Casper’s gold and jewelry and selling it so she can get out of poverty *, it becomes furious as she nears the gold, more Mickey-mousing before she tries to steal come of it and is caught red-handed by the kings’ servant (who gets punched repeatedly by Amahl who gets him to let his mother go).

37: The Kings give Mother the gold ** because “the child” doesn’t need it (could they not have done this earlier?).

39: The Miracle **, bizarre, also slightly out of the blue. Why exactly does Amahl suddenly walk, dance, run? In any case the Kings join in a joyous ensemble * and they ask to take Amahl with them on their mission to find this “child”.

42: Mother says good-bye *** to Amahl, to a duet that could have been lifted out of a Mozart opera until everyone else comes in and the Kings say “we’re off!”, the chorusing is cut short by the return of Amahl’s pipe tune. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

This opera was one of the first I ever saw, even before I liked opera, when I was in Kindergarten and First Grade music class. The plot is, admittedly, more than a little obvious: crippled boy is healed by a miracle and walks at the end. Apart from Mother’s attempted theft there really isn’t any dramatic action, and apart from Casper’s world famous “This is my box” there aren’t any real arias either. There are, however, three great moments in the opera: the journey song of the Three Kings, their quartet with Mother, and Mother and Amahl’s good-bye duet. For what it is, which is in all honesty amusing American Christian Christmas fare, it is a memorable piece which played a role in my childhood. Nostalgia city here I come! I like how Menotti avoids actually mentioning Jesus here, it makes the proceedings a little like Wagner’s Parsifal, and less blatantly obvious. For a brief moment, you almost agree with Mother that the Kings are actually looking for Amahl! Incidentally Rosemary Kuhlmann, the creator of the role of the Mother, is still alive, aged 96 as of this writing. A-.

2 thoughts on “Gian-Carlo Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951)

    1. Really?!? On both counts. I’ve heard this, The Telephone, and most of The Medium, I had just never bothered to review them. I tried getting into The Council, but it is too long. Amahl is probably the most approachable given its vaguely religious tone and rather conservative music.

      I also reviewed Le Renard just now. For some reason I was in a mood tonight!

      I’m looking forward to your 100th! Not just because it is number 100 (which is still great!) but because I want to find out which opera it is. I know it can’t be The Maid of Orleans because it is your favourite Tchaikovsky. Over time I’ve grown to like it more. At the same time, no rush, I’d rather have a long and well written 100th review than have my curiosity satisfied in a matter of hours.

      Oh and yes, Red Sonja is a Schwarzenegger movie, although Brigitte Nielsen plays the title play obviously. It is a dreadfully campy film, but some of the lines are unintentionally funny.

      Like

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