Opera Warhorses

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Intimate Opera’s “Amahl” Presented at Venerable Pasadena Playhouse’s Christmastide – December 16, 2010

December 17th, 2010

In past years, Tom’s Tips have featured such diverse holiday fare as the Bracebridge Dinner during Christmas Week at Yosemite National Park and “Phantom of the Opera” performances in Las Vegas. This year, he will highlight a production of Menotti’s Christmas opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, performed by the newly formed Intimate Opera Company within the famous Pasadena Playhouse, with four performances between December 16 through December 19, 2010.

Tom’s review of the December 16th performance is posted below:

Night Visitors to Visit Amahl in Historic Pasadena Playhouse

It’s Christmas Season – when many of us swoon to the glorious music of Handel’s Messiah, and certainly to one of its most overwhelming numbers: Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice Greatly   .    . Well, here it’s Christmas Season and a new opera company has arrived on the scene – Intimate Opera of Pasadena at www.intimateopera.net. (They dub it IOP) – Rejoice !

And to add lustre to this wonderfully happy news is that they celebrate their Gala Opening with Gian Carlo Menotti’s adorable “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at their new home a block from my Pasadena offices – the venerable, lovely, and yes intimate old Pasadena Playhouse – the State Theater of California – at www.pasadenaplayhouse.org . It’s just off Green Street on South El Molino # 39 in the Theater District of Pasadena just south of the Rose Parade route on Colorado Blvd. You can’t miss it -easy, cheap parking across the street, safe on the streets as well. Excellent restaurants highlighted below – the world famed Cordon Bleu academy of cooking is a block away!!!

[Below: the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse; photograph by Thomas Rubbert.]

Contrary to what some nay-sayers might be won’t to say upon the opening of a new venture in times like these, this is no Amateur Hour Shew by any means. Metropolitan Opera stars who have also graced the stages in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles etc command our stage with a superb team of highly experienced professionals who know their business. From those of us who love this, the most challenging, opulent, glorious (and expensive) of the performing arts – a most hearty WELCOME to IOP which plans Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” in 2011 and Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in 2012 (LA Opera’s most recent presentation).

“Amahl” is a distinctly Twentieth Century piece written for NBC television and seen by millions on Christmas Eve, 1951 (I saw this telecast later and absolutely loved it). It has become a tradition on TV and I submit more Americans have seen this one-act tear-jerker than have seen any other opera, by any other composer, ever! Across the land are many, many local productions. I’ve seen it from coast-to-coast over the years, and place it along side the lush Christmas opera of Humperdinck – the very Wagnerian “Hansel & Gretel” which I also love (and watch every year on DVD several times!).

[Below: Gian Carlo Menotti, in 1950, the year he was composing “Amahl and the Night Visitors”; based on a historical photograph from spoletofestival.it.]

Menotti was a prolific composer who attended the famed Curtis Institute of Music in Philly with the likes of Leonard Bernstein (who hardly needs introduction) and fellow-American-composer Samuel Barber – with whom Menotti developed a lifetime friendship. Menotti founded the celebrated Spoleto Festival USA (and earlier its equivalent in Europe), wrote something like two dozen operas – some well known – earning a Pulitzer prize for two (“The Consul” in 1950, and “The Saint of Bleeker Street” in 1955), having written his first opera at age eleven “The Death of Pierrot”and what were you doing at eleven??

He passed at 95 in 2007 leaving the world much the richer for all his contributions – most certainly including “Amahl and the Night Visitors” which very probably is his most appreciated legacy. Indeed, next summer Santa Fe Opera features Menotti’s “The Last Savage which your website host William will be reviewing. LA Opera has done Menotti pieces as well.

The short story of “Amahl” – in this one-act short opera – happens on the very first Christmas Eve, all taking place in and around the small, rustic hut of the young lad Amahl and his impoverished, widowed Mom, with the crippled Amahl, needing a crutch to get about, but loving to play his shepherd’s flute-like pipe – nearby there are shepherds ” . . . in the fields, abiding o’er their flocks by night” (day too!). His tune is haunting, lillting and lovely – this sets the action in motion.

[Below: Mezzo soprano Suzanna Guzman (left), being interviewed by Dallas Opera media director, Suzanne Calvin; edited image, based on videography by Cody Rubio, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Gradually appearing out of the darkness in resplendant raiment are Three Kings  Amahl is very excited and asks such probing questions a kid would ask, like ”  .  .   .is your blood really blue? And of course, what goodies are they carrying with them and where are they going? Meanwhile the neighbor-shepherds come in filled with curiosity, and upon being told of the royal’s quest, they present humble gifts of local fruits and veggies to the Three Kings who are most graciously appreciative – they are Kaspar, Balthasar and Melchior who have a page to help things along – they tell Mom they are seeking The Child, singing “Have you seen a Child the color of wheat, the color of dawn?”

As night settles in, Amahl urges Mom to come out to see the beautiful night sky brilliantly illuminated by an immense new star ” . . .  as big as a window . . . “. The thrilled Shepherds, led by Amahl, are enticed to dance, ending up in an exciting, fast-paced Tarantella to the delight of all.

Mom, desparately poor but seeing all this wealth on her floor, secretes one of the precious gifts, but just then the Page awakens, and a brawl ensues, with Amahl lighting upon that Page to rescue Mom who simply wants to present some of the Three King’s gold to the Christ Child, but the Three Kings intervene and observe the Christ Child has no need of the gold. Mom begs them to take back the gold for The Child. Meanwhile Amahl wants to present his crutch to the Babe in the Manger having asked Kaspar if maybe he has some magical jewel to help cure his crippled leg.

But just then a miracle transforms the scene – Amahl cannot only walk now without his crutch, but dances and prances in Joy! The royals beam in happiness at this miraculous event. As the Three Kings prepare to depart to the Manger Scene to behold the Christ Child bearing their gifts, Amahl asks to join them – they happily so invite him, and as they leave on their sacred quest, Mom and Amahl sing an incredibly emotional duet “I shall miss you very much”. As this entourage take their leave, Amahl plays his flute with the same lilting tune that opened this lovely fable.  I guarantee you there’s not a dry eye in the house!!

The Cast: Two local opera-singers done good – gracing the stages at NYC’s Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera, inter alia, are mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman (no rookie in LA – she’s done 39 productions here in LA alone!) and worked with composer extraordinaire Gian Carlo Menotti personally.

[Below: Tenor Greg Fedderly (right) attends a Los Angeles Opera performance with soprano Amanda Squitieri; edited image, based on a photograph from the Los Angeles Opera.]

She is Mom opposite comprimario-tenor Greg Fedderly who graces LA’s stage very often (seemingly everywhere else these days!), singing King Kaspar, baritone Robin Buck as King Melchior (no rookie either – 45 roles all over the world with mentors like greats Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Placido Domingo et al!. Greg Fedderly most recently did the comic role of Monostatos in Mozart’s sublime “The Magic Flute” where he brought down the house with screaming laughter – a role he will reprise at the Met shortly.

[Actor Malcolm McDowell as Mr Linderman on the NBC television series, Heroes,  promotional photograph.]

Bass baritone Cedric Berry does King Balthazar (Met Auditions winner and frequent LA Opera artist like in LA’s productions of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, Puccini’s “La Boheme” and , Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”, Gounod’s “Faust”, Britten’sBilly Budd” – again hardly the new kid on the block).

The Page is Benito Galinda, and our lad-sopranos as Amahl are Caleb Glickman alternating with Leighton Sackby, all conducted by Pasadena Master Chorale Founder and Director Jeffrey Bernstein – again no rookie on the LA classical music scene to say the least – from 1997 to 2007 director of chorale music at local Occidental College when he’s not composing music, leading world chorale tours, hopefully taking time out to have dinner occasionally – having music degrees from such schools as Harvard and Yale plus our own UCLA.

The Production Team. The Founder and General Director of IOP is Wendy Kikkert – her team includes stage director Stephanie Vlahos hailing from Yale University and a graduate of NYC’s world-famed Juilliard School – she’s also a singer having performed with LA Opera and also having worked with famed conductor Pierre Boulez (will be here in LA to conduct next March!!), conductor-composer Andre’ Previn, composer John Adams, et al.

Dessert Served after Intermission! This is truly sweet – it being the Christmas Season well-known actor Malcolm McDowell (Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; John Carpenter’s Halloween) will read Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales after the intermission – beverages, goodies available in the lovely courtyard.

Tickets: This production opens on Dec 16, and there are performances on Friday Dec 17, 2010 at 8:00, ditto on Saturday Dec 18 which also has a 2:00 PM Matinee, and a 2 PM Matinee Sunday Dec 19. Pull IOP’s website at www.intimateopera.net and phone for tix at 626 274-7372.

Dining less than a block away: On “campus”, overlooking the attractive fountained courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse, is an excellent dining spot (crowded), “Elements Kitchen” (see the website for phone). A stone’s throw down Green street less than a block on the same side of the street is Zagat rated Maison Akira (713 E Green St at 626 796-9501) which is a superb French-Asian Fusion spot worthy of major attention.

Just up El Molino at  641 East Colorado Blvd (NW corner) is Hawaii’s terrific Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine about 250 feet away at 626 356-4066.  Around the corner on Lake Ave just 2 short blocks east of the Theater and a smidge down (south) 141 South Lake Ave is an outstanding North Italian destination restaurant Celestino’s (valet parking) at 626 795-4006. All these are within very easy walking distance.

Epilogue: Legend (and Gian Carlo Menotti) have it that as a child, Menotti was crippled in a leg not aided by unsuccessful medical treatment, being ultimately taken to a Holy Shrine in Italy – shortly thereafter he was no longer crippled!!  Sound familiar?

See also: Tom’s New Year’s Pleasure: “Phantom of the Opera” in Vegas. For a discussion of the Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel, see: Tom’s Winter of Content: Midwinter Opera in Sunny Southern California 2007-08.

Tom’s review of the December 16, 2010 performance of “Amahl”:

Gala Opening Night Production Reviewed: This was an extraordinary night for not only Pasadenans but Southern California Opera lovers alike: the opening presentation of a brand new opera company with a very spirited crowd gathered in Pasadena Playhouse’s most salubrious courtyard we have pictured, where I recognized many, many opera-loving friends coming to enjoy – and support our newly welcomed cultural asset. Pasadena has enjoyed opera before over the years in its grande, very European Civic Auditorium – such as visits by San Diego Opera, and others – but these were road shows (most welcome indeed) but not by our own resident opera company. All of us wish IOP the best of all possible luck.

And they produced the goods – a superb, highly polished, very professional presentation!! “Amahl and the Night Visitors” is usally presented by local colleges and churches, and occasionally by smaller, local performing groups, but this was not a home-town, local-yokel show – far fom it. IOP made a decision to have the reading of A Child’s Christmas in Wales first, which was read fabulously by Malcolm McDowell seated comfortably by a table as snowflakes projected on the scrim fell softly. Then without intermission, the curtains rose for the Opera with a large set of Amahl’s rustic abode with a blazing fireplace around which all the action took place.

IOP played the piece as a comedy – very effectively – when it fit. The laughs started when there was rapping at the door – as Amahl opens it he beholds a King, jumping back to tell his Mom who is disgusted with him at seeing such ridiculous things, then another knock, another King! Then three – Mom is bug-eyed at the spectacle of Three Kings and their resplendant Page parading in. Gregg Fedderly enters as King Kaspar carrying a huge birdcage with a brilliantly-plumed parrot inside, provoking more laugh-lines.

The cast was very well balanced – Suzanne Guzman as Mom got by far most of the singing – and as always, she was terrific and garnered the most applause. Greg Fedderly was a true comic, but didn’t get many long lines to sing. Later – after the show in talking with him, he said he loved the chance to have fun in this role and being able to do it in Pasadena!

The Shepherds turned out to be essentially a dance-troupe who gave a super show ending with the Tarantella noted above – clearly the high point in the music. This total charmer was a treat for all, very much appreciated by the audience, and most worthy for all to see in a most comfortable house!!

Tom Rubbert

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