Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" was made for television. Or was television made for "Amahl"? Commissioned by NBC 20 years ago, the tuneful tearjerker has since become a royalty machine for its creator and an annual ritual for young audiences at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.
Like TV sitcoms and talk shows, "Amahl" was born of desire for greater contact with things that seem remote. That intimacy, and the special charms of a story told through a child's perspective, balance out the opera's overt sentimentality.
Just as television permits few nuances, neither does this tale of a crippled boy who is miraculously healed when he offers his crutches to the visiting Wise Men as a gift for the Christ Child. The opera is a series of humane reconciliations -- between peasants and kings, between good intentions and profit, between individualism and obedience. It is fairly direct about how one goes about being a good boy. Yet it has much to say that is intriguingly ambiguous. "Amahl," with its rustic set and folksy, drone-based woodwind melodies, draws heavily on half-forgotten longings for the vanished world of pastoral virtues.
Indeed, the opera's subject, composer and the time of year during which it is performed lead one to expect a certain degree of emotional exhibitionism. But director Roman Terleckyj goes overboard. Amahl, particularly Derek West in Tuesday evening's second cast, is made to hobble a great deal, even when standing still. Amahl and his mother spend too much time hugging and looking pathetic.
No matter how many times the director had his actors drive home a point Tuesday, focus remained a problem. During the quartet scene, when Amahl was offstage, the interplay between his mother and the three kings was confusing. Indeed, without Amahl's perspective, the story line itself drifts. This is certainly one of the score's weakest points.
Menotti's own production, the same as last year's, stretches the limits of its simple setting. The thatched hut is surrounded by countryside and veiled in a dark blue sky twinkling with stars. Designer Zack Brown plays up the contrasts between Amahl's earthy surroundings and the Kings' pompous finery.
In the title role, West was a forceful young dramatist. Identical twins Gregory and Stephen Lofts also will play Amahl during the run of this year's production through Sunday. Gregory sang Tuesday evening's first performance. His voice was assured, unwavering and extremely enjoyable to hear. One hopes he will gain more assurance as an actor in his next appearance, and let Amahl's mischievious, scheming side take over. West certainly did.
As Amahl's mother, both Rebecca Russell and Roberta Laws were compelling performers, in different ways. The ensemble work was delightful, owing in part to the Kings' shimmering three-part harmony and Stephen Crout's sensitive conducting.