No child growing up in the 1950s or 1960s’ could consider his or her Christmas complete without an annual viewing of Gian Carlo Monotti’s Amahl And The Night Visitors, the first opera specifically composed for American television. This fifteen year tradition ended in 1966, when the rights to a 1963 taping reverted to Menotti, who refused to allow this version (one which he disapproved of) ever to be shown again, thereby depriving later generations of one of the most extraordinary of holiday memories. An imperfect VHS-to-DVD transfer of a 1955 black-and-white kinescope is currently the only in-print version available to parents wanting to share the Amahl experience with their children, or boomers wishing to relive childhood memories.

All the more reason to celebrate Intimate Opera Of Pasadena’s five-performance staging of Amahl And The Night Visitors at the Pasadena Playhouse, a production that had this child of the ’50s and ’60 wiping away tears from start to finish as four-decade-old memories came rushing back in an instant, emotions made even stronger by the superb performances of its stellar cast under the impeccable direction of Stephanie Vlahos.

Amahl And The Night Visitors tells the tale of a poverty-stricken widow and her crippled child living near Bethlehem just before the birth of Christ. Like the boy who cried wolf, Amahl has told his mother so many tall tales that it’s no wonder she doesn’t believe his latest, about “a star as large as a window, and the star has a tail, and it moves across the sky like a chariot on fire.” Life is so tough for mother and child that it seems their only option is to go out begging.

Later that night, the pair are awakened by a knocking on their door, and when Amahl goes to see who’s there, the tale he tells his mother dwarfs the one about the star in unbelievability: “Mother … outside the door … there is … there is a king with a crown!” Naturally, Amahl’s mother will have none of his latest tall tale, but the knocking persists, revealing a second king, and later a third. Sure enough, there are not two kings outside. “The kings are three, and one of them is black.”

Eventually, Amahl’s mother gets up to see for herself, and lo and behold, there standing in front of her are Kings Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Villagers are summoned to entertain the royal guests. Amahl’s mother sees a way to put an end to her child’s suffering, but her plan comes to nothing. Fortunately, a miracle ends Menotti’s one-act opera on a note of faith and hope.

Menotti’s melodies are the kind that can stay with you for decades, the closest thing to Puccini that this reviewer has heard. That, and the fact that Amahl And The Night Visitors’ libretto is in English, make this 50-minute piece a parent’s best choice to introduce a child to opera. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that its protagonist is a child himself.


Soprano Suzanna Guzmán, an East L.A. native who has gone on to international acclaim, plays the Mother at all evening performances, and she is extraordinary, both vocally and as an actress. Joining her on opening night in the role of Amahl was Caleb Glickman (originally scheduled to perform only matinees), a thirteen-year-old with an absolutely lovely boy soprano, an enchanting stage presence, and acting chops to match Guzmán’s.

Tenor Greg Fedderly is a delight as King Kaspar, the deaf monarch who never travels without his box and has a passion … for licorice. Baritone Robin Buck does powerful work as Melchior, whose duet of “Have you seen a child the color of wheat… the color of dawn?” with Guzmán is one of the evening’s most gorgeous musical highlights. Bass-baritone Cedric Berry completes the kingly trio to perfection as Balthazar, who lives “in a black marble palace full of black panthers and white doves.”

Guzmán, Fedderly, Buck, and Berry perform only evenings. Appearing at all performances are baritone Benito Galindo (terrific as The Page) and a trio of fine dancers (Chris Fedun, Casa Grant, and Stephanie Hullar) who perform Conny Mathot’s sprightly choreography.

Conductor Jeffrey Bernstein leads a splendid sixteen-musician pit orchestra, and a talented seventeen-member chorus from the Pasadena Master Chorale appear as the villagers. Scenic designer John Iacovelli, lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg, and costume designer Kate Bergh have combined their prodigious talents to make the production look as great as it sounds.

Opening all performances with a delightful reading of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas In Wales is renowned film star Malcolm McDowell.

With few performances remaining, opera lovers (and those who wish to make opera lovers of children of a new generation) are hereby advised not to miss this exquisite production, one which ought to become an annual Pasadena Playhouse event.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
–Steven Stanley
December 16, 2010

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