It was doubly ironic for an opera that’s about the triumph of love over money. Marble City Opera had cast a local 10-year-old boy to play the part of Amahl. (To avoid the legacy of this review hanging over him, neither he nor his mother will be named. It wasn’t his fault.)
Two weeks before last night’s performance, the child’s mother demanded that he be paid three times more than everyone else, even though the child has no performing experience, as opposed to the trained singers and orchestral players, many of whom have graduate degrees and lists of performance credits.
It was a bad move. MCO’s directors, conductors, singers and musicians are all paid the same amount. It also put the production in a bind.
But, on only two-weeks’ notice, soprano Kathryn Shepas, who had never sung the role before, stepped in. Her Amahl radiated a child’s sense of wonder and delight, that mysterious quality children have to be happy in spite of being sick and poor.
Inspired by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th century triptych, “Adoration of the Magi,” and based on traditional Italian folk recountings of the Nativity and Epiphany, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” tells a side story of a poor, cripple boy and his mother, living in poverty, who have visitors knock at their door in the night.
The visitors are the three kings of the Biblical story of the Nativity looking for a place to rest for the night, on their journey to follow the star. Amahl’s mother invites them in, part of a cultural tradition, no longer practiced in the West but still is in many places in the world, in which strangers are to be shown hospitality.
With no food to feed her visitors, the mother, well sung in this production by Lindsey Fuson, sends Amahl to request the local shepherds come and bring what food they have to serve to the royal guests.
After everyone goes to sleep, the mother notices how much gold the kings have and decides that they woudn’t miss just a little of it. But it would go a long way to helping her child. She sings “All that gold. I wonder if rich people know what to do with that gold.”
But the kings’ page, well played and sung by Brad Summers, catches her red-handed. However, when the kings awake and discover why the mother wants the gold, they agree to leave it for her and the boy.
King Melchoir, robustly sung by Brandon Gibson, confidently sings that the child-king they are going to visit doesn’t need the gold anyway because he is going to build his kingdom with love.
The glorious, enveloping acoustics of St. John’s sanctuary is the perfect setting for this production.
Director James Marvel has the kings, Breyon Ewing, who sings hearing-impaired King Kasper; and Daniel Webb, who sings King Balthazar, joined by Gibson’s King Melchoir, enter down the aisle from behind the audience.
One hears their thunderous voices before seeing them, trailed by the page, with bundles and a parrot cage strapped to his back.
Menotti’s music, conducted by Ace Edewards, is light and, at moments, has the sparkle of shining stars. Under Edewards’ baton, the orchestra of 14 musicians never overwhelms the singers, although the sanctuary glows with sound.
Written to be broadcast on television in 1951, a period in which many in America had not regained their footing after World War II, “Amahl’s” themes of sharing and love had immediacy and relevance.
As we approach Christmas this year and in the context of the current tax debate, with the power of this production, it still does.
“Amahl and the Night Visitors” will be performed again at St. John’s Cathedral, 413 Cumberland Ave. downtown Knoxville, at 3 p.m. Sunday.
It’s a must see!