Amahl And The Night Visitors’ return to the Pasadena Playhouse stage for one weekend only is red-letter news indeed, for opera fans and newbies alike regardless of age. Once again impeccably directed by Stephanie Vlahos and performed by a stellar cast headed by Suzanna Guzman and Caleb Glickman, the Gian Carlo Menotti one-act is a one-of-a-kind holiday treasure.
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, returns to the Playhouse as Amahl’s adoring mother, and she is as extraordinary as before, demonstrating vocal prowess and first-rate acting chops. Now fourteen, the marvelous Caleb Glickman has maintained his exquisite boy soprano another year and is every bit as captivating a performer and powerful an actor as he was last December.
Golden-voiced tenor Greg Fedderly returns delightfully as King Kaspar, the deaf monarch who never travels without his box and has a passion … for licorice. New this year is baritone Leroy Villanueva, rich and powerful 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 Hector Vásquez joins the cast to vocal perfection as Balthazar, who lives “in a black marble palace full of black panthers and white doves.”
Returning baritone Benito Galindo is terrific (and very funny) as The Page. A trio of gifted dancers (returning Cása Grant and Stephanie Hullar and newcomer Jarrod Tyler Paulson) perform Conny Mathot’s balletic choreography with grace and verve.
Conductor Jeffrey Bernstein again leads a large, splendid pit orchestra, and the very talented Pasadena Master Chorale appear as the villagers. Scenic designer John Iacovelli, lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg, and costume designer Kate Bergh have once again combined their prodigious talents to make the production look as great as it sounds.
Opening all performances with a charming reading of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas In Wales is renowned film star Malcolm McDowell, back again to audience delight.
In last year’s review, I expressed the hope that Amahl And The Night Visitors might become an annual Pasadena Playhouse event. That wish appears to be coming true.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
December 10, 2011