New “Amahl” makes a timely Christmas treat
It’s hard to believe there was once a time when a commercial television network would not only air regular classical performances but actually commission a new opera and broadcast it live in prime time. What a long way the medium has come from such an event to I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here.
Premiered on NBC on Christmas Eve 1951, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors was an instant success and aired every holiday season for the next 15 years. Just three-quarters of an hour, Amahl remains a small, affecting masterpiece, and the touching story of the poor, crippled shepherd boy whose willingness to sacrifice his crutch leads to a Christmas miracle has lost none of its charm or gentle poignance over the last half-century.
The original-cast RCA recording, conducted by Thomas Schippers and recorded under Menotti’s close supervision, has long held sway with impressive mono sound and a supremely inspired cast led by Rosemary Kuhlmann as the mother and Chet Allen’s sweet-voiced Amahl.
This new Naxos Amahl, recorded in Nashville, offers a worthy alternative to the classic RCA disc. The moment when Amahl realizes he can walk doesn’t quite have the luminous impact it should, but otherwise the recording is superb. Sensitively directed by Alastair Willis, the cast is terrific, with mezzo Kirsten Gunlogson even rivaling Kuhlmann as the boy’s strict but loving mother and Ike Hawkersmith making a fine, characterful Amahl. The recording benefits from the luxury casting of Dean Anthony and Todd Thomas as two of the wise men, as well as members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus joining the Nashville Symphony Chorus for quite glorious ensemble singing, both in the opera and in the apt fillup of Menotti’s late choral setting, My Christmas. No libretto but the English words are so clear, none is really needed.
For music fans who are too young to have encountered Amahl on television, the one-act opera makes a choice introduction to Menotti’s lyrical art, especially since even the composer’s finest stage works remain neglected in American opera houses. Highly recommended.
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Fri Dec 19, 2008
at 1:40 pm