Paul Mesner’s puppets in “Amahl and the Night Visitors” (Don Ipock)
In 2020, Lyric Opera of Kansas City debuted a new production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a holiday show pairing live opera with newly created puppets from Kansas City legend Paul Mesner. But like so many other shows last year, Amahl ended up canceling its live performances and was only available to stream digitally. While the production ended up being extremely successful in its execution, everyone from the audience to the creators seemed thrilled to be able to be back last week, to finally be able to experience in person the show Lyric Opera is calling their new holiday tradition.
Amahl already comes with a rich Kansas City history. The first televised production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act opera was in 1951, in what was also the debut of the long-running anthology series, the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
Lyric Opera’s new retelling of the story deliberately taps into the “lo-fi” essence of that legacy, as director James Smith puts it in his program note. Mesner’s gorgeous, nearly life-sized puppets have a beautifully rustic, almost (deliberately) crude appearance. A small orchestra and a simple story also serve to give Amahl a homespun aesthetic that belies the impeccable craftsmanship and talent being presented across the board. The end result is truly captivating.
The story of Amahl is based on Italian folktales of the first Christmas, centering on a young disabled boy and his mother living in extreme poverty. They had a flock of sheep but they died; they had a goat but the goat also died of old age. They now have nothing. Amahl, at least, has a fantastic imagination, but his mother is exhausted by his wild exaggerations and tall tales.
One of those tales involves a bright star with a massive tail trailing behind it. Amahl’s mother does not believe such a thing exists (and would very much like her son to stop making such ridiculous claims) until three kings following the star stop to ask for shelter for the night. Their story is even more fantastical than her son’s, as they describe the newborn child they’re trying to find, a young king they want to bestow with their various gifts.
The story here is a simple one, especially with its exceptionally brief runtime of under an hour, but it creates a nice foundation for the show’s other elements. The small orchestra, led by conductor Piotr Wisniewski, elegantly supports a phenomenal cast of singers.
The role of Amahl alternates between two young actors—Delilah Rose Pellow and Finn Kuykendall. Pellow performed the role opening night with a phenomenal display of range, capturing Amahl’s humor and levity amongst the show’s darker themes. Pellow, who has also performed on Broadway and starred in national tours, dazzled last year in Kansas City Rep’s production of Fun Home and is quickly establishing herself as an actor worth deliberately seeking out when she’s on a Kansas City stage.
Aubrey Odle (who alternates with Danielle Beckvermit) also gives a standout performance as Amahl’s mother with a voice that is pure sorrow made manifest. Overcome with mourning in regard to her family’s circumstances, she is the perfect, heartbreaking foil to her exhaustingly optimistic young son. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the three kings (Wayd Odle, Keith Klein, Peter Morgan) and their page (Nathan Whitson), all phenomenal voices.
Amahl and the Night Visitors is an exciting addition to the city’s holiday traditions. And while this is undeniably a Christmas story, it’s also presented as enough of a universal fable—one about love, family, and selflessness—that those looking for more non-denominational winter fare will have plenty to enjoy as well.
“Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a production of Lyric Opera of Kansas City, runs through December 12 at the Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building, 712 E. 18th St. For more information, visit kcopera.org.