Review by Doug Carroll
Photos by Jerry Bauer
How do you feel about going to the opera?
Wait, wait, hold on. Here’s a better question: How do you feel about going to a one-act opera, sung in English, lasting less than an hour, with a simple, sweet story line that even a third-grader could follow?
We’re guessing you’re warming up to the idea.
It’s tempting to characterize “Amahl and the Night Visitors” as opera for people who don’t like opera, but that would diminish the fine performances and exceptional staging of the College of Fine Arts and Production version, which opened Friday night at Ethington Theatre to a packed house.
The lightweight “Amahl” was an astute choice by Dean Claude Pensis for GCU’s first opera in at least five years. The last time an opera was staged at Ethington, the production included Amber Wagner, an alumna who is now making a name for herself internationally. So we can expect meatier fare in due time.
Written for television 60 years ago by Italian-American Gian Carlo Menotti, “Amahl” tells the story of a disabled shepherd boy (Amahl, played by Alyssa Liu) and his widowed mother (a role shared by Christina Cullers and Claire Penneau), who receive an overnight visit by the three kings on their star-lit way to see the Christ child.
The family’s poverty contrasts sharply with the wealth of the kings, and it’s impossible to miss the mother-and-child similarities to the Savior’s arrival. When Amahl’s mother tries to relieve the kings’ sleeping guard of some gold, the boy leaps to her defense and all become witness to a miracle.
The most demanding vocals are those of Amahl’s mother, and it was a treat hearing Cullers sing the part on opening night. Her soprano is perhaps the best in GCU’s music program. Penneau, too, has a splendid voice developed by operatic training. The production’s second and final weekend is scheduled to have Penneau in the role on Friday, Cullers on Saturday and Sunday.
Liu holds her own with such talent and exudes a naïve charm as Amahl. Kings Balthazar (Sam Brunner), Melchior (Jimmy Davis) and the doddering Kaspar (Adam Benavides and Miguel Romero in a shared role) are properly regal, and credit goes to the consistently fabulous costuming of Nola Yergen for making them look the part.
After the kings arrive, Amahl goes and rounds up the neighbors, who come bearing gifts. A lively peasant dance performed by Kelsey Alexander and Ashley Brown — a pair of talented GCU dance students — is a highlight of the show.
Assistant Dean Bill Symington’s lean staging and Pensis' direction don’t try to do too much with the simple story, and “Amahl” is guaranteed to put even the most committed Scrooge in the Christmas spirit.
Which reminds us: Look for “A Christmas Carol” as part of next year’s Ethington Theatre Series.
“Amahl and the Night Visitors” concludes with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call 639.8880 or email [email protected].
Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].