Saturday, December 7, 2013

Gian Carlo Menotti's greatest hit, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," makes an impact in Indianapolis Opera production

Even skeptics become broad-minded about miracles around Christmastime, especially when they are so attractively packaged as the one that climaxes Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors," which opened Friday night in an Indianapolis Opera production at the Basile Opera Center.

The show, designed and directed by Joachim Schamberger, is in its second year at the company's relatively new performance home. Most of the 2012 cast has returned, but opening night featured a new boy soprano, Aiden Arnold, who made the role of Amahl his own, vocally and dramatically. (He will divide the six scheduled performances with last year's Amahl, Cody Lile; the run ends Dec. 15.)

Apart from too much checking of the monitor during the first scene, Aiden seemed thoroughly immersed in putting across the plight of a crippled shepherd boy living with his widowed mother in poverty around  the time of the first Christmas. Framing this story is a modern-day counterpart of this small family, which makes the opening scene a pretend dialogue between son and mother using figurines from a manger scene that's apparently the lad's main plaything.

Though he wears an Andrew Luck jersey, this contemporary Amahl does not seem caught up in electronic toys, which is refreshing. It's a little hard to fathom why such a boy would fall asleep to dream of himself living in dire poverty, however. Kids have vivid imaginations, but it strains credulity to thoroughly accept the likelihood of such visions among middle-class youth of today, despite the young hero's parallel of being disabled and probably somewhat isolated from his peers.

The character of the Mother is consistently designed by Menotti to display no imagination, and she repeatedly warns Amahl against telling lies. So it's a little hard in the first scene to take her as an enthusiastic participant in her son's flights of fancy, despite the charming staging.

Schamberger is such a visionary designer, with projections that morph vividly between scenes, that the effect of such implausibility is fortunately diminished. The big-windowed suburban home bending into the first-century Middle East setting offers almost complete compensation for the jarring aspects of the frame tale. Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein's lighting design complements the action and the rich humanity of Schamberger's concept.

Amahl's mother (Elizabeth Batton) explains her lot in life to King Melchior (Mark Gilgallon).
Photo: Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.
Elizabeth Batton, an Indianapolis native now living in Louisville, plays the Mother commandingly. She's a stern parent, with outbursts of affection for her son and concern about his welfare. Batton sang well about the temptation to steal some of the riches of the Three Kings who stop by on their way to Bethlehem. When the Mother is caught, Batton displayed her repentance movingly. That made the Mother's response to the ensuing miracle a believable commentary on the salutary effects of contrition.

Indianapolis Opera has again struck gold (and frankincense and myrrh) in the casting of the Three Kings. David B. Mannell (Kaspar), Mark Gilgallon (Melchior), and Darren Kenneth Stokes (Balthazar) were solid in trio singing as well as individually. Splendidly outfitted, they managed to seem both aware of their privileged position and humble about their extraordinary mission. John Rolle gave apt comic touches to the small but crucial role of the Page.

Twelve members of the Indianapolis Opera Chorus, prepared by John Schmid, are the lively contingent of shepherds whose curiosity and sense of hospitality impel them to come see the Kings, bringing gifts of food and brief entertainment. Their a cappella singing was firm and well-balanced.

Jan Need's choreography, hearty and simple, was more in keeping with the character of first-century shepherds than the more virtuosic dancing sometimes used. The style of the opening shepherdess solo was slightly discordant in its reliance on hand and arm movements, which evoked the dance traditions of the Far East rather than the Near East.

The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra represented Menotti's colorful, lyrical score quite well, and conductor James Caraher kept everything coordinated and supple from his (and the orchestra's) unconventional position off to one side of the stage.