Master puppeteer Paul Mesner crafted the title character in “Amahl and the Night Visitors” for the Lyric Opera. (Don Ipock)
YouTube is, among other things, an amazing cultural repository, incomplete and disorganized though it may be. There you can find random touchstones from the past, including a grainy kinescope recording of the original NBC broadcast of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” on Christmas Eve, 1951.
It was the first of several TV productions of Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act opera and it marked the debut of the Hallmark Hall of Fame — the long-running anthology series with roots in Kansas City. Menotti composed the piece specifically for television. By so doing, he created an instant holiday classic.
This year the Lyric Opera chose to undertake a new production of the piece with the novel participation of puppeteer Paul Mesner. Originally it was intended to be a socially-distanced live performance captured as a streaming video for consumption on computer screens and smart TVs. But a surge in the COVID-19 infection rate prompted the Lyric to cancel the in-person performances, although the classy digital version is available this month on the Lyrics’s website.
The production, directed by Shawna Lucey and shot and edited by Line Creek Media, is a creative success thanks to quality musical performances and by placing the viewer close to the action in a way that would be impossible in a conventional live show. The camera follows the dramatic narrative enacted by large-scale puppets on an impressive stage created for this production, but also offers close views of the singers, situated on one side of the performance area, and the musicians on the other.
The story, supposedly based on Italian folk tales, is a parable of generosity and spiritual awakening set in the Holy Land. The piece unfolds entirely in the humble, poverty-stricken home of Amahl, a boy with defective leg who walks with a crutch, and his Mother, a widow whose tolerance for her son’s whimsical storytelling has worn thin in the face of their stark circumstances. They once had a flock of sheep, but the sheep died. They once had a goat who gave milk, but the goat succumbed to old age. Their home is a hut with bare cupboards and only straw for bedding.
Amahl, sung by soprano Holly Ladage, tries his mother’s patience with his description of the fabulous night sky with an overhead star with a tail that “moves across the sky like a chariot on fire.”
When Mother (performed by mezzo-soprano Kelly Morel) is consumed by despair as she contemplates a life of begging, Amahl tries to cheer her up: “If we must go begging, a good beggar I’ll be. I know sweet tunes to set people dancing. We’ll walk and walk from village to town, you dressed as a gypsy and I as a clown . . .”
Later there is a knock at the door and Amahl reports that outside is not just one, but three kings. Despite Mother’s exasperation at Amahl’s supposed make-believe, he’s actually telling the truth. Three kings — Kaspar (tenor Michael Wu), Melchior (baritone Daniel Belcher) and Balthazar (bass Scott Conner) — are following the star described by Amahl to Bethlehem and ask if they may rest for a bit. With them is an officious page, (bass-baritone Keith Klein).
With nothing to offer her guests, Mother sends Amahl to bring neighboring shepherds, who provide food and dancing. The kings describe the one they are journeying to see — a child who on “love alone will build his kingdom.” When Amahl offers his crutch as a gift to the child sought by the kings, he is miraculously cured of his limp. He departs with the kings to accompany them on their journey.
“Amahl” seems a simple story on the surface, but on second glance it raises spiritual and philosophical questions about the value of sacrifice and the belief in a better tomorrow which gives us the courage to get through another day.
The small orchestra is composed of two violins, viola, cello, bass, piano, flute, clarinet and basoon. Led by conductor Piotr Wisniewski, the musicians perform impeccably, as do the singers. A total of nine puppeteers — out of sight beneath the stage — operate the rod puppets, which are remarkably expressive when lifted by the power of the music. The puppets — or should I say, the puppeteers? –capture the humor inherent in Menotti’s tale.
I haven’t seen this piece since childhood, when I viewed one of the subsequent TV versions. But it’s always good for another go. Menotti created a myth, and like all myths, this one captures the imagination.
For more information, visit www.kcopera.org.