Menotti’s “Amahl” receives a moving and effective performance

By David Fleshler

“Epiphany” by Hieronymous Bosch, c.1485.

Classical music’s answer to It’s a Wonderful Life and the other Christmas miracle stories is the one-act, English-language opera Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Composed by Gian Carlo Menotti for live broadcast on NBC television in 1951, this holiday perennial was given a moving, effective performance Saturday at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church by Orchestra Miami, in association with the Hispanic-American Lyric Theatre. The work will be repeated in separate English and Spanish performances Jan. 6 at Teatro Trail in Coral Gables.

Set in a modest home near the city of Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago, the opera tells of one evening when the crippled boy Amahl and his widowed mother receive a visit from three kings following a mysterious star to the site of a wondrous birth. Despite his poverty, Amahl gives the kings a gift to take to the baby. A miracle ensues.

The composer specified that the part of Amahl was to be played by a real boy, as opposed to the common dodge of casting a woman in the role, and thus ensuring some professional reliability in rehearsal and performance. While having children on stage in substantial roles can make you nervous—what if something goes wrong?– 13-year-old Alexander Segarra brought a veteran performer’s assurance and personality to the role. A student at the Miami Conservatory of Music in Coconut Grove, he gave a timeless portrait of the harried adolescent, rolling his eyes at his mother’s nagging, without overdoing it. Although his voice sometimes wavered, his diction was crystal-clear, and that’s the most important thing in an opera like this.

By far the most impressive singing came from Jouvance Jean-Baptiste as Amahl’s mother. She gave a passionate, vocally lustrous performance in her solo moments, such as when she sang of her fears that her crutch-dependent son would end up as a beggar.

Although there were no sets, costume designer Angelina Esposito went a long way toward compensating for this by effectively outfitting the performers, from the gaudy get-ups of the kings to the simple robes of the shepherds. Stage director Michael Yawney made good use of the front of the church, creating a sense of Amahl’s house that almost made it possible to forget the absence of scenery.

A highlight of the performance was the work of Orchestra Miami, conducted by Elaine Rinaldi. In addition to providing sympathetic support to the singers, the orchestra shined when performing on its own, with rich string tone and poignant wind playing in passages such as the wistful music that accompanies Amahl’s mother as she tucks him in for the night.

As the three kings, Justin John Moniz, Graham Fandrei and Kevin Short were appropriately dignified and stentorian in their singing, although it wasn’t always easy to understand their words when they sang together. Moniz provided some comic relief as the eccentric King Kaspar, singing about his box of amulets and candy.

The audience was surprisingly small, with the church at best half full. But if you’re still in the mood for holiday fare on Jan. 6 and would like a change from the usual Scrooge, Grinch and Charlie Brown Christmas, this production of Amahl and Night Visitors would be a fine choice.

Amahl and the Night Visitors will be repeated Jan. 6, at Teatro Trail in Coral Gables. The 2 p.m. performance will be in English with Spanish subtitles, and the 4 p.m. performance will be in Spanish with English subtitles.; 305-274-2103.

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Sun Dec 23, 2012
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