Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Eugene Onegin at Seattle

Passion! Pain! Poetry! (but hold the irony . . .)

Pow! Zap! Zowie! Wowie! -or- Arthur, King of Long Beach

If you might have thought a late 17thcentury semi-opera about a somewhat precious fairy tale monarch might not be your cup of twee, Long Beach Opera cogently challenges you to think again.

Philippe Jaroussky and Jérôme Ducros perform Schubert at Wigmore Hall

How do you like your Schubert? Let me count the ways …

Crebassa and Say: Impressionism and Power at Wigmore Hall

On paper this seemed a fascinating recital, but as I was traveling to the Wigmore Hall it occurred to me this might be a clash of two great artists. Both Marianne Crebassa and Fazil Say can be mercurial performers and both can bring such unique creativity to what they do one thought they might simply diverge. In the event, what happened was quite remarkable.

'Songs of Longing and Exile': Stile Antico at LSO St Luke's

Baroque at the Edge describes itself as the ‘no rules’ Baroque festival. It invites ‘leading musicians from all backgrounds to take the music of the Baroque and see where it leads them’.

Richard Jones' La bohème returns to Covent Garden

Richard Jones' production of Puccini's La bohème is back at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden after its debut in 2017/18. The opening night, 10th January 2020, featured the first of two casts though soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who was due to sing Mimì, had to drop out owing to illness, and was replaced at short notice by Simona Mihai who had sung the role in the original run and is due to sing Musetta later in this run.

Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Mozart’s Don Giovanni returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in the Robert Falls updating of the opera to the 1930s. The universality of Mozart’s score proves its adaptability to manifold settings, and this production featured several outstanding, individual performances.

Britten and Dowland: lutes, losses and laments at Wigmore Hall

'Of chord and cassiawood is the lute compounded;/ Within it lie ancient melodies'.

Tara Erraught sings Loewe, Mahler and Hamilton Harty at Wigmore Hall

During those ‘in-between’ days following Christmas and before New Year, the capital’s cultural institutions continue to offer fare both festive and more formal.

Prayer of the Heart: Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet

Robust carol-singing, reindeer-related muzak tinkling through department stores, and light-hearted festive-fare offered by the nation’s choral societies may dominate the musical agenda during the month of December, but at Kings Place on Friday evening Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet eschewed babes-in-mangers and ding-donging carillons for an altogether more sedate and spiritual ninety minutes of reflection and ‘musical prayer’.

The New Season at the New National Theatre, Tokyo

Professional opera in Japan is roughly a century old. When the Italian director and choreographer Giovanni Vittorio Rosi (1867-1940) mounted a production of Cavalleria Rusticana in Italian in Tokyo in 1917, with Japanese singers, he brought a period of timid experimentation and occasional student performances to an end.

Handel's Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall

For those of us who live in a metropolitan bubble, where performances of Handel's Messiah by small professional ensembles are common, it is easy to forget that for many people, Handel's masterpiece remains a large-scale choral work. My own experiences of Messiah include singing the work in a choir of 150 at the Royal Albert Hall, and the venue's tradition of performing the work annually dates back to the 19th century.

What to Make of Tosca at La Scala

La Scala’s season opened last week with Tosca. This was perhaps the preeminent event in Italian cultural and social life: paparazzi swarmed politicians, industrialists, celebrities and personalities, while almost three million Italians watched a live broadcast on RAI 1. Milan was still buzzing nine days later, when I attended the third performance of the run.

La traviata at Covent Garden: Bassenz’s triumphant Violetta in Eyre’s timeless production

There is a very good reason why Covent Garden has stuck with Richard Eyre’s 25-year old production of La traviata. Like Zeffirelli’s Tosca, it comes across as timeless whilst being precisely of its time; a quarter of a century has hardly faded its allure, nor dented its narrative clarity. All it really needs is a Violetta to sweep us off our feet, and that we got with Hrachuhi Bassenz.

'Aspects of Love': Jakub Józef Orliński at Wigmore Hall

Boretti, Predieri, Conti, Matteis, Orlandini, Mattheson: masters of the Baroque? Yes, if this recital by Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński is anything by which to judge.

Otello at Covent Garden: superb singing defies Warner’s uneven production

I have seen productions of Verdi’s Otello which have been revolutionary, even subversive. I have now seen one which is the complete antithesis of that.

Solomon’s Knot: Charpentier - A Christmas Oratorio

When Marc-Antoine Charpentier returned from Rome to Paris in 1669 or 1670, he found a musical culture in his native city that was beginning to reject the Italian style, which he had spent several years studying with the Jesuit composer Giacomo Carissimi, in favour of a new national style of music.

A Baroque Odyssey: 40 Years of Les Arts Florissants

In 1979, the Franco-American harpsichordist and conductor, William Christie, founded an early music ensemble, naming it Les Arts Florissants, after a short opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Miracle on Ninth Avenue

Gian Carlo Menotti’s holiday classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors, was the first recorded opera I ever heard. Each Christmas Eve, while decorating the tree, our family sang along with the (still unmatched) original cast version. We knew the recording by heart, right down to the nicks in the LP. Ever since, no matter what the setting or the quality of a performance, I cannot get through it without tearing up.

Detlev Glanert: Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch (UK premiere)

It is perhaps not surprising that the Hamburg-born composer Detlev Glanert should count Hans Werner Henze as one of the formative influences on his work - he did, after all, study with him between 1984 to 1988.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Photo by B.A. Van Sise
09 Dec 2019

Miracle on Ninth Avenue

Gian Carlo Menotti’s holiday classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors, was the first recorded opera I ever heard. Each Christmas Eve, while decorating the tree, our family sang along with the (still unmatched) original cast version. We knew the recording by heart, right down to the nicks in the LP. Ever since, no matter what the setting or the quality of a performance, I cannot get through it without tearing up.

Miracle on Ninth Avenue

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

All photos by B.A. Van Sise

 

So take it with a grain of salt when I praise Amahl as the only truly perfect opera. Here the cliché is literally true: one cannot imagine adding or subtracting a single note. Other canonical operas approach such distilled perfection: Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia, Verdi’s Il trovatore and Falstaff, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and Strauss’s Salome come to mind. Yet even these great works contain a few moments, if not an aria or two, where inspiration flags. Not so Amahl.

From the start, critics have protested that Amahl is flawless only because it is so simple-minded. On the train to the performance, I ran into one of the most experienced and enthusiastic opera-goers I know – someone who has been around long enough to have watched the premiere of the opera’s live premiere on NBC TV almost seventy years ago. He scoffed at my choice of evening entertainment, insisting that he never wants to hear Amahl again.

amahl2.png

One can understand why. It is a children’s opera based on an unabashedly sentimental Christmas tale concocted by Menotti himself: on their way to Bethlehem, the Three Kings pass by the house of a poor crippled boy, who is miraculously cured and joins their caravan. It was the first made-for-TV opera, which meant the story had to be told in just 45 minutes, so as to leave space for an announcer’s introduction and, in the first years it was broadcast, a commercial for Hallmark Cards. In the heyday of atonality, Menotti’s music was a throwback to the Italian romantic idiom of Puccini, yet with much less complexity. After a brief prelude, the action starts and ends with an oboe ditty in C Major; in between, it deploys diatonic major and minor harmonies (though at times more complex and harmonically ambiguous than they may seem) and conventional folk rhythms, all played by a modest chamber orchestra.

Yet, like all the greatest operas, the music composed for Amahl is onomatopoetic. Elsewhere, Menotti employed dense textures, complex tonalities, and weird orchestral timbres; here, his writing is deliberately naïve and sincere. It underscores the libretto’s central message: life is ultimately about love and generosity, on the model of the family – and in this, the disadvantaged among us deserve special regard. Moreover, as Menotti reminds us in his production notes, the story is told from the perspective of Amahl, an innocent (if mischievous) child. It is he who first sees the kings, defends his mother (when she steals out of love for him), receives the miracle, and departs at the end to thank the baby Jesus himself. Only by watching this do the adults around him learn that Christmas is not, as King Melchior puts it, about the rich giving gold, frankincense, myrrh and other worldly things to someone who “does not need it.” It is about helping those immediately before us. The same conviction inspired Charles Dickens, O. Henry, Hans Christian Anderson, Frank Capra, Dr. Seuss and many other authors of classic holiday tales.

amahl13.png

In sixty years, no production of this opera I have attended captures the essence of Amahl better than this revival by On Site Opera. This company has become an essential element in the exciting renaissance of small-scale lyric theater in New York today. Its specialty is “site-specific” opera: immersive performances to small audiences in non-traditional everyday spaces.

Last year this production premiered to great praise. This year it returned to the sanctuary of the 175-year old Church of the Holy Apostles on Ninth Avenue at 28th Street – a lovely space which doubles as the site of the largest feeding program of the Episcopal Church, serving over 1000 meals every weekday lunch. The performance takes place in the middle of the church sanctuary, with the audience all around.

Menotti set the opera in a shepherd’s hut two millennia ago, which he imagined to be much like the rural Italy of his youth. This production transports the action to the present and to an urban setting – just like that immediately outside the church. Amahl becomes a poor kid who plays with plastic superhero toys, his mother a tired single parent. The three kings are eccentrically dressed street people schlepping their possessions around in shopping carts. It remains deliberately unclear whether they perceive the same reality others do – and whether their quest to honor the newborn Jesus is real or delusional. Most in the cast are people of color, and the chorus and dancers are comprised of performers who have experienced homelessness at one time or another.

amahl19.png

For a modern urban audience, this approach renders the relevance of the opera’s central point obvious and amplifies the opera’s dramatic intensity. One example must suffice. A high point of the opera occurs when Amahl’s Mother, thinking of stealing some of the kings’ gold to help her child, sings:

All that Gold! All that Gold!
I wonder if rich people know
what to do with their gold?
Do they know how a child could be fed?

Do rich people know?

No one can miss the point when she addresses these yearning vocal lines to a largely white, well-educated and wealthy Manhattan audience sitting just a few feet away.

One of the strong points of On Site Opera is its ability to find singers with the technical facility and dramatic immediacy to deliver such lines in such intimate setting. Here they succeeded brilliantly. All were believable in an immersive setting. As Amahl’s Mother, the young Viriginian soprano Aundi Marie Moore sang with warmth and soared passionately above the ensemble when needed. Boy soprano Devin Zamir Coleman, a multi-talented sixth grader from Harlem with diverse film, vocal and instrumental credits, sang with remarkable intonation and power. Joshua Jerimiah, Musa Ngqungwana and Julius Ahn – who have collectively sung on the stages of many of America’s major opera houses – comprised a sonorous trio of kings. Jonathan R. Green appeared as their servant (here a security guard), singing with an appropriately harsh edge.

One could raise technical quibbles. Moore struggled with some low-lying phrases. A sweeter timbre and more attention to rhythmic cadence of parlando phrases, which Menotti notated precisely and early performances under his direction observe strictly, might have better conveyed Amahl’s combination of insouciance and innocence. The orchestral playing and choral singing was more boisterous than tender. Whether due to first night jitters or challenging acoustics unsuited to a studio opera, moreover, the performers were not always together and some balances confusing. (The kings, for example, got softer as they neared Amahl’s house.) The chorus struggled to render some passages cleanly (not least the final fugal section), while the dancers were more exuberant than skilled.

None of this really matters. For those who attended, the sincerity and power of Menotti’s music and message, conveyed in a uniquely modern setting, transcended any technical limitations. I tried hard and failed to resist tears, as did dozens of other similarly entranced spectators around me. This unique production deserves to be revived as a permanent part of New York’s holiday season.

Andrew Moravcsik

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):