The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still
more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we
continue to review the experience of watching live theatre
And The Night Visitors
NBC Opera Theatre 1951 and YouTube
NBC Opera Theatre 1978 and YouTube December 2023
It seems fitting for our last review of 2023 to be a production associated with December by generations of American audiences.
Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl And The Night Visitors was the first opera ever commissioned for a television premiere.
Broadcast live on American commercial network NBC on Christmas Eve 1951, it was revived, restaged and eventually recorded and rebroadcast annually for more than three decades, along with being performed in opera houses around the world.
YouTube has several versions, including the original 1951 broadcast and a 1978 revival.
Menotti's 45-minute opera is a version of the Little Drummer Boy legend. A poor widow and her crippled son are visited by the Three Kings on their way to Bethlehem.
The visitors' accounts of the holy child they are driven to honour inspire the lad to offer up his one possession, his crutch, and the impulse miraculously cures his lameness.
It is a simple tale deliberately told simply. While some snootier music critics of the 1940s and 1950s dismissed Menotti as old-fashioned because he wrote recognizable and hummable melodies, it was largely that accessibility that made him popular – some of his operas actually premiered on Broadway rather than opera houses.
Those who first encountered Amahl as children are likely to remember some of its melodies for the rest of their lives.
They can be light and sprightly, like 'Mother come with me,' Amahl's attempt to convince his mother there are actually kings at their door, and 'This is my box,' one king's surprising account of his personal treasures.
And they can be moving and dramatic – 'Have you seen a child,' the kings' explanation of their quest, 'Do they know,' the mother's moment of jealousy that another child seems worth more than her own, and the touching parting of mother and son, 'I shall miss you very much.'
(As I typed those two sentences I realized that the brief quotations will trigger recall of their melodies for many.)
Of the two broadcast versions on YouTube, there is no question that the 1978 is technically superior, with clearer picture and sound. It is also more elaborately produced, in colour, with a larger chorus and exterior scenes actually filmed in Israel.
The cast is starry, led by Teresa Stratas, Willard White and Giorgio Tozzi, while the 1951 cast – Rosemary Kuhlmann, Leon Lishner and David Aiken – is less known if no less expert. (The two boy sopranos – Chet Allen And Robert Sapolsky – are equally impressive.)
And yet many, including those who grew up on one of 1951 version's revivals, will find the modesty of the original staging more appealing and, as directed by Menotti himself, closer to the composer's vision, with the bigger and more elaborate 1978 production unnecessary gilding of a fragile lily.
The two versions are only 45 minutes each, so treat yourself by watching both.Gerald Berkowitz
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