OVERNIGHT REVIEW: “Amahl and the Night Visitors” retains charms at the Pasadena Playhouse

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

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Opera Posse: Amahl and the Night Visitors

December 10, 2011 at the Pasadena Playhouse

Next performances: Today at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 2
p.m. and 7 p.m.

Information: www.operaposse.com

 

57152-Amahl photo.jpg

Suzanna Guzmn stars
as the Mother and Caleb Glickman as Amahl in Opera Posse’s production of “Amahl
and the Night Visitors” (image from last year); the opera is playing this
weekend at the Pasadena Playhouse.

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Sixty years ago NBC Television did something that, in
retrospect, seems quite radical: it telecast a one-act opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, written by
Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti specifically for that Christmas
Eve telecast. In addition to being shown on NBC for many years (see the first Hemidemisemiquaver note below for more
history), the opera has been staged by many companies, schools, churches and
other entitles during the past six decades.

 

However, genuinely inspired productions are hard to come by.
Last year, in what would turn out to be its last production before going
bankrupt, Intimate Opera Pasadena staged Amahl
with remarkable fidelity to Menotti’s original opera, prefaced it with
actor Malcolm McDowell reading Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and presented it in the intimate
confines of the historic Pasadena Playhouse, which is a just-right venue for
this chamber opera.

 

Many of the people involved in last year’s production have
come together in a new venture entitled Opera Posse to re-stage that production
this weekend (most are donating their services in an effort to help this new
company get off the ground and establish Amahl
as a new Pasadens tradition). 
And it’s a pleasure to report that that this revival has lost none of
the charm of last year’s offering.

 

John Iacovelli’s sets are filled with rich, imaginative
details, beginning with the opening scene: a tall window with falling snow in
front of which McDowell sits and reads Thomas’ tale about Christmas Eve and
Christmas Day in long-ago Wales with a rich brogue and impressive shadings.
Only an obnoxiously placed light in the window marred the effect.

 

That set morphs seamlessly into the simple, poor home of
Amahl and his mother on Christmas Eve. The open roof allows for views of the
Bethlehem star, which moves across the sky as the story of hope and wonder
unfolds (Amahl means “hope” in Arabic). The one act is filled with “unabashed
whimsicality,” as director Stephanie Vlahos notes in the program. She does an
effective job of accentuating those qualities by telling the story without
resorting to unnecessary gimmicks, aided by Kate Bergh’s costumes, Jared A.
Sayeg’s lighting scheme, and Conny Mathot’s choreography.

 

Suzanna Guzmn’s portrayal of the Mother is a model of
understated professionalism; she catches the mother’s frustration with the
tall-tale-telling Amahl and the pathos of her struggles to provide a home, food
and heat for her and her child. Caleb Glickman is appropriately impish as the
lame shepherd boy.

 

As is often the cast, The Three Kings — Greg Fedderly as the
somewhat deaf Kaspar, Hector Vsquez as Balthazar, and LeRoy Villanueva as the
stately Melchior — come close to stealing the show. Benito Galindo is the Page
and the exuberant dancers are Stephanie Hullar, Csa Grant and Jarrod Tyler.

 

Jeffrey Bernstein returns to conduct the 18-piece orchestra
and he kept things moving along smartly. Members of Bernstein’s Pasadena Master
Chorale, as the chorus, got off to a somewhat ragged start but rallied nicely
at the end.

 

In an era when glitz and high-tech threaten to obliterate
the purposes of Christmas, Amahl and the
Night Visitors
reminds us of the meaning behind the seemingly simple tale:
hope and faith. Even on a VERY busy weekend filled with many concerts and other
events, it’s worth revisiting those values with this production.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

  For the
inaugural telecast, Amahl was seen on
35 NBC affiliates coast to coast, the largest network hookup for an opera
broadcast to that date. An estimated five million people saw the live
broadcast, the largest audience ever to see a televised opera. The first two
telecasts were in black and white; thereafter, it was telecast in color.
Wikipedia offers more background HERE.

 

Since Bernstein has a Pasadena Master Chorale concert this
evening, Alan Mautner will conduct the 8 p.m. concert. Previous reports had
mentioned Jorge Mester and Rachael Worby taking the helm but both were forced
to drop out.

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

Five-Spot: What caught my eye on November 3, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

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Each Thursday morning, I list five events (actually six this
week) that peak my interest, including (ideally) at least one with free
admission (or, at a minimum, inexpensive tickets). And this doesn’t count the
Metropolitan Opera’s HD telecast of Siegfried
on Saturday beginning at 9 a.m. at theaters in the area — be forewarned:
the running time is approximately six hours! (LINK).

Here’s today’s grouping:

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Tomorrow at 11 a.m.,
Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic. James Conlon, conductor; Yuja Wang, pianist

Much of the attention will, undoubtedly, be focused on what
the young Chinese pianist will wear (she of the “little orange dress” notoriety
LINK) but the real story should be a wonderfully constructed
program — Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Prokofiev’s
Piano Concerto No. 3 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 — led by LA Opera Music
Director James Conlon with Wang as soloist. Tip: if you’ve never attended a
morning L.A. Phil concert, this would be a great time to try it out, but check
for ticket availability. Info: www.laphil.com

 

Tomorrow at 8 p.m.
at Alex Theatre (Glendale) and Sunday at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall (UCLA)

Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra plays Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti

The six Bach Brandenburg Concerti are about as far away from
Prokofiev’s 3rd (above) as you can get, but Bach’s famous sextet is
indelibly linked with LACO — this will be the 51st time that the
orchestra has played all or some of the pieces. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer
will lead the performance from her first-chair position. Info: www.laco.org

 

Sunday at 2 p.m. at
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Los Angeles Opera’s Romeo et Juliette

LAO brings back its
Ian Judge-created production of Gounod’s take on Shakespeare’s tale of
star-crossed lovers. Tenor Vittorio Grigolo and soprano Nino
Machaidze
sing the title roles; Plcido Domingo conducts. A Los Angeles Times story on the young
soprano is HERE and and of Brian’s nifty “10 Questions” posts in Out West Arts on Grigolo is HERE.
Info: www.losangelesopera.com

 

Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Lang Lang in recital

What caught my eye about this concert was the program, which
begins with Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat, continues with Schubert’s Sonata in
B-flat, and Chopin’s 12 Etudes, Op. 25 — three pieces of distinctly contrasting
styles that should be fascinating in the hands and mind of the young Chinese
pianist (this is obviously a weekend for young Chinese pianists). Info: www.laphil.com

 

Monday at 7 p.m. at
Castle Press (Pasadena)

Muse-ique stops the
presses

Rachael
Worby continues her penchant in Muse-ique’s first year of presenting programs
in unusual sites — in this case, the Doric String Quartet making its Los
Angeles debut amid stacks of paper and the printing presses of this north
Pasadena establishment (the musicians will be standing on the press while the
audience will sit on other presses and rolls of paper).

 

The
featured work on the evening will be a new string quartet by Southern
California native Peter Knell that the composer and Worby will discuss and the
Doric Quartet (which took first prize in the 2008 Osaka International Chamber
Music Competition) will play. The evening will also contain movements from
quartets by Haydn, Schubert and Bartok, and — given that Worby is in charge –
there’s sure to be a surprise or two. Info: www.muse-ique.com

 

And the weekend’s “free admission” program …

 

Friday at 8 p.m. at
Pasadena Nazarene Church

Pasadena Community
Orchestra with Suzanna Guzmn as soloist

Music Director Alan Reinecke conducts a program that
features one of the nation’s finest mezzo-sopranos, Suzanna Guzmn, as soloist
in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. The
program also features music by Bartok, Howard Hanson, Prokofiev and Ralph Vaughan
Williams. Info: www.pcomusic.org

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.