Amahl production a charming gift of youthful energyReview
The hustle and bustle of the holiday shopping season definitely brings its share of stress and anxiety as people shop for that perfect gift for that special someone.
So on a busy weekend afternoon, prime shopping time, it was nice to be reminded how the greatest gift is not of material wealth but rather to give of ourselves without pretense or expectation. Such is the lesson imparted by Amahl & The Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti, arguably the most enduring Christmas-themed operatic repertoire of the past half-century. The story tells of an impoverished, crippled shepherd boy named Amahl who, with his widowed mother, are visited by the Magi (also known as the Three Kings or the Three Wise Men) on their way to Bethlehem. By showing generosity and hospitality despite limited resources, Amahl is healed of his physical disability and accompanies the Magi to thank the Christ child in person.
Premiered on 24 December 1951 as a live broadcast for the US television network NBC, Amahl & The Night Visitors has been adapted as a mainstage operatic production. Calgary Opera dusted off its Amahl score for the first time in 30 years to stage three performances this past weekend (December 7-9, 2018), in a collaborative venture between its Emerging Artists Program, the Calgary Youth Orchestra and select players from the University of Calgary. The result is a charming production brimming with youthful energy.
Of course, the success of any Amahl production rests largely on the strength of its eponymous lead character. Calgary Opera double cast the role of Amahl with a pair of talented 12-year old boys, Aidan Pfeifer and Joel van den Berg. On this day, Pfeifer charmed the audience with a sweet, easy treble voice that complemented his cherubic portrayal of a shepherd boy. And despite his youth, Pfeifer conveyed a complex variety of emotions in his portrayal, from wonder to playfulness to exuberance to even anger and desperation as he fights with the Page in a pivotal scene. His ever-smiling demeanour filled the intimate space of the Mamdani Opera Centre with a warmth that endeared him to the audience.
Amahl’s widowed mother, played by soprano Megan Miceli, was another bright star of this production. Like Pfeifer, Miceli’s portrayal was honest and nuanced, her round, vibrant tone filling the performance space with ease. Notably, Miceli supports Pfeifer in duet passages well; her rich sound always found a sweet blend with the young treble voice opposite her. The chemistry Miceli has with her young co-star is also convincing, adding a sincerity and grace to her performance.
The roles of the Magi, Kings Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, were played by Andrew Derynck, Jonah Spungin, and Justin Welsh, respectively, the former two as members of the Emerging Artists Program. Derynck’s humorous portrayal of Kaspar adds a magical eccentricity to his interactions with Pfeifer, while Spungin and Welsh play their roles with regal poise. Spungin, in particular, shines in a key moment when he describes how worldly wealth pales in comparison to the divine gift the Messiah will offer humanity.
Members of the Calgary Opera Chorus added boisterous exuberance to the production, while the two young dancers, Maddie Gaskarth and Callum Macsymic, gave the party scene that much more revelry and dynamism. But special mention should be made of the orchestra which, in a youth initiative, comprised members of the Calgary Youth Orchestra, individuals from the University of Calgary, and select professional musicians. Conducted by Kimberley-Ann Bartczak, the orchestra played with remarkable skill, energy and sensitivity that stands up with any professional ensemble. Edmond Agopian, conductor of the Calgary Youth Orchestra and a professor at the University of Calgary School of Creative and Performing Arts, should be commended for underscoring how the city has many talented local musicians who, given the means and opportunity to perform, will offer a first-rate performance.
Buoyed by youthful charm and energy that permeated the entire production, Calgary Opera’s run of Amahl & The Night Visitors was truly a gift the whole family would enjoy.
*Calgary Opera’s production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl & The Night Visitors included performances on December 7, 8 and 9. As part of its continuing outreach to local youth, the Emerging Artists will tour local schools in the spring with excerpts from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.*