Amahl and the Night Visitors

Holidailies 2004December 12, 2004
Amahl and the Night Visitors is Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act Christmas opera written for television in 1951. It tells the story of a lame shepherd boy who lives in what should be taken for first-century Judea. Given to imaginative tales of “a leopard with a woman’s head,” and “a tree branch that shrieked and bled,” he draws skepticism from his distracted widowed mother when he tells her that a star with a tail hangs above their house. Late in the night, however, the family is visited by three richly-robed kings who seek to rest a while from their journey following the star, which they believe will lead them to a newborn who is destined to become a great leader. Amahl and his mother, along with their neighbors, offer the kings hospitality and entertainment.

While everyone is asleep, however, the mother regards the cask of gold that the kings intend to give the child. She determines to take just a little, knowing they won’t miss it and knowing what she can do for her own child. Their servant discovers her in mid-theft and causes a commotion. The kings tell her that she can keep the gold, and explain to her the nature of the child whom they seek: “his might will not be built on your toil, . . . on love alone he will build his kingdom, . . . and the keys to his city belong to the poor.” Saying that “for such a king I have waited all my life,” the mother insists that the kings take back their gold. Impulsively, Amahl offers his crutch because the child might need one, and suddenly finds himself able to walk.

Much rejoicing at this miracle follows, and the kings offer to take Amahl along with them so that he can present his gift himself. The story ends with a tender goodbye between Amahl and his mother.

I have known and loved this story nearly all of my life. I grew up watching it on television until technical difficulties with the original production and a dispute between Menotti and NBC ended the annual presentations. Since the early 1970s I have sought local productions, and even played in the pit orchestra for one which featured David Aiken, who originated the role of King Melchior. I’ve seen it performed in church basements, community centers, elegant theaters, church sanctuaries, and one high school stage. I own two different audio recordings of it, and a murky copy of the kinescope made of the original performance. I know every note and can sing all the parts at once.

Ron and Lynn have seen it several times with me, and although they enjoyed it, they do not share my passion for it. They’ll watch the Christmas episode of Dragnet with me, but they don’t want to go to any more performances of Amahl.

So this afternoon I took my cousin Jim, his wife, Lisa, and Katie, their eight-year-old daughter, to a performance that promised to be excellent. It was being staged by the Little Theater of Mechanicsburg in conjunction with the Central Pennsylvania Youth Opera and Messiah College’s orchestra. The theater at Messiah College has stadium seating, so there are no obstructed views, and its lighting and acoustics are first-rate.

Well, it wasn’t the worst performance I ever saw. That distinction goes to the sincere but inept church group that mounted their rendition in a corner of their fellowship hall with only a piano for accompaniment and their shepherds wearing eyeglasses and wristwatches. But it did have its flaws. Amahl had not been coached well in feigning lameness, and he seemed to make little use of the crutch. The Youth Opera members who comprised the shepherds’ chorus sang well, but there weren’t enough of them, and only one was a man.

But the biggest problem, at least for this connoisseur, was an egregious deviation from the text in the casting of the kings. When Amahl checks who is at the door, he reports to his mother first that the visitor is a king with a crown. She doesn’t believe him, and when he returns after another look, he amends that to two kings. Finally, after checking again, he tells her that “the kings are three, and one of them is black.”

Well, in the production I saw yesterday, one of them was not black. The servant was, sort of (very light-skinned with coarse hair), and it was he who stood in the doorway so that Amahl could deliver the line.

It will probably seem petty to most people that I find fault with an amateur production mounted by volunteers who do it for the love of performing. But the Little Theater is in its fifty-fourth season, charges admission (albeit not Broadway prices), and receives funding from a local arts endowment. I would think that in all of the capital city of Pennsylvania, a director or producer might be able to find a black baritone willing to take on the role.

But Katie enjoyed the production, and I enjoyed being with my cousin and his family. And there was one very nice touch that gave me a new insight into a story I thought I had nothing left to learn from.

As a child I thought it was a story about a youngster who sets of on an adventure. Later I saw that it was his selfless act in giving the most of what little he had that opened new worlds to him. More recently I’ve seen it as the story of a mother who has raised a child so strong in spirit that he overcomes his physical weakness and is ready to leave her.

In today’s performance, Amahl hugged his mother and then trailed the kings across the stage. When he was about to exit stage left he turned, looked at her, and ran back for a last embrace. Adventure calls, to be sure, but it is not without regret that one answers.

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