On-Site Opera’s intimate “Amahl” fulfills Christmas mission in a meaningful way

Fri Dec 07, 2018 at 3:41 pm
Amahl (Devin Zamir Coleman) and his Mother (Aundi Marie Moore) in Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" at the xxxxx./ Photo: Pavel Antonov

Amahl (Devin Zamir Coleman) and his Mother (Aundi Marie Moore) in Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea. Photo: Pavel Antonov

Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors used to be a staple of Christmastime entertainment. Composed specifically for television, it premiered on NBC on Christmas Eve, 1951. It went on to have an unusual history—it was performed live on television annually through 1963, when that year’s performance was taped for future rebroadcast. There was a gap of a dozen years when Menotti, who had not approved the taped production, kept it off the air. Then in 1978 it was filmed with a cast that included Teresa Stratas and Willard White.

Amahl was also adapted for live theatrical performances. As the opera has disappeared from broadcast television, one wishes there were more space for it amid all the Bach, Handel, and carols during the holiday season. For Amahl and the Night Visitors is a superb work—lovely and full of feeling without sentimentality, succinct and generous.

That alone makes On Site Opera’s current staging, which opened Thursday night at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea, welcome. Beyond that, the circumstances of the production are relevant and meaningful in a real-world way—that the performance was beautiful all around makes this one of the most fulfilling classical performances of the year.

Amahl is On Site Opera’s full production for this season, and tickets are free. Better than free, actually, because patrons are asked to bring canned goods and travel-size toiletries to donate at the venue. And the opera is not just performed in a soup kitchen, it is set in the world of soup kitchens.

The night visitors are the three kings who follow the star in the east to visit and honor the newly born Christ child. The stop to take shelter with Amahl (Devin Zamir Coleman on Thursday night), a shepherd boy with a crippled leg, and his mother (soprano Aundi Marie Moore). As the staging makes clear, the shelter is an actual shelter—Amahl and his mother have nothing, no home, not even anything to eat.

The kings appear in shabby mufti, pushing shopping carts and a stroller holding their possessions. They are street people—Melchior (baritone Daniel Belcher) unfolds his cardboard to sleep on. This dramatic touch from director Eric Einhorn supported Menotti’s essential charitable ideal. For the composer (who also wrote the excellent libretto), Christmas didn’t mean Santa Claus but Christ, the king of the poor; as one line in the opera puts it “And the keys to his city belong to the poor.”

Photo: Pavel Antonov

Photo: Pavel Antonov

This was all matter-of-fact in the performance which was so physically intimate that it precluded any archness. Everything was in fact so close to the audience and so simple, that it stripped the opera down to the barest storytelling and made manifest what a wonderful work this is. Amahl doesn’t proselytize nor bear witness, it tells a story that, because it is peripheral to the birth of Christ, delivers the meaning of Christianity with enormous understated power.

Centering such a story around people who are peripheral to society at large is not a new idea, which may make it underappreciated. To see Moore lift her weary and frazzled head from the soup kitchen table and open up her shining voice, to hear the exquisite harmonies from Belcher, tenor Joseph Gaines as Kaspar, and bass Musa Ngqungwana as Balthazar, offers the rare experience of discovering the extraordinary in what one casually overlooks in ordinary everyday life. Indeed one is likely not only to pass by people sleeping on the street near the soup kitchen, but lining up to enter a shelter.

That this production was more than a music drama with a temporary, artificial separation from lived life was cemented by the chorus, its members recruited from Breaking Ground, an organization that provides permanent supportive housing. Led by Michael A. Ciavaglia, this group sang with polish and also an unfeigned and simple enthusiasm and joy that often eludes polished professionals.

As natural as was the conception, so in equal measure was the skill. The cast was excellent throughout, the ballet—choreographed by Winston A. Benons Jr. with a mix of modern dance and street moves—was full of marvelous fun and beauty, and the smallish chamber orchestra—made up of members of the American Modern Ensemble and conducted by Geoffrey McDonald—played the score with a rich sound, fine pace, and careful attention to phrasing and expression. This is a seasonal production that would be a must-see any time of year.

Amahl and the Night Visitors will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday, and 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. Devin Zamir Coleman sings Amahl Saturday afternoon, Luciano Pantano sings the part Friday and Saturday evenings. Reservations are required and can be made at osopera.org

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