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EXPLORING MUSIC: "An Evocation of Lost Innocence" Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors

The MHS Review 390 Vol. 11 No.12 1987

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David M. Greene


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When, a couple of years ago, the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra and Muhlenberg College joined forces in a production of Amabl, my wife, as the costumer, went for her source to Hieronymous Bosch's "Adoration of the Magi." When the kings enter (the production has become an annual af­fair), the audience always gasps.

I think Menotti would appreciate the effect, for Bosch's picture was the source of his inspiration for the opera. Actually, the latter had its origin in the Italian Christmases of Menotti's childhood, wherein the Magi alleged­ly delivered the Christmas gifts. Like Santa Claus to our kids, they were very real presences to the young Menottis, who fantasized about them and developed them into living characters.

In 1951 Menotti was riding high, appearing to be the Great White Hope of opera. Before he was 30 he had had one work produced at the Met and another commissioned. Three others had had successful Broadway runs. It was no wonder then that NBC, whose honchos could then see as much as six inches beyond their noses, commis­sioned him to do a Christmas opera, the first of the species ever ordered up for television-and one of the last to date. In November, Menotti, without a clue as to a possible subject and growing desperate, stumbled on the Bosch painting and was washed away in a germinal flood of childhood memories. The production went on as scheduled and the rest is history.

For many years the NBC Amabl was a ritual. Many students who took my opera course came to it on the sole basis of having seen the Menotti piece in childhood. And it is perhaps produced by amateur stage companies more often than any other such work. (Menotti says he conceived it not for TV but for "an ideal stage.") And no wonder: basically a miracle-play, it is, as theater, a small miracle in itself. The story is simple: when the Magi stop to rest in his humble home, Amahl, a cripple, is healed by an act of unselfishness, and sets out with them for Bethlehem. If the recitatives sometimes strike neophytes as silly ("imagine people singing 'Good evening!' in harmony!" snorted a local play reviewer) the tunes are ac­tually hummable and stick in the memory. What it all adds up to is an evocation of lost innocence that acts irresistibly on the emotions; and the miracle scene, even without the stage action, inevitably moves me to tears.

1 have no idea of the origins of this performance. Some of the singers have turned up in minor roles on British records, and all are exemplary here, though I find the Amahl more querulous than pleases me. The sound is superb, the diction crystalline, the orchestral reading as good as any I've heard. My only major objection is that the production feels more like the studio than like the stage (e.g. when first heard the kings are obviously grouped around a microphone, not "from far"), but that is a small price to pay for an otherwise excellent recording.

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