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Chamber Orchestra, Madcap to Bring "Amahl" in 2012

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Dec 15, 2011 - 7:40:24 PM in calendar



"Oh Mother, you should go out and see."

Cincinnati will hear those words by the crippled boy Amahl as he tries to persuade his mother to go outdoors and see the star “as large as a window” in a special production next December of Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors” by the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and Madcap Puppet Theater.  It will be the second collaboration by the CCO and Madcap, who presented Manuel de Falla’s "Master Peter's Puppet Show" in June, 2009 at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

A briefing on the project took place Wednesday evening in the offices of Arts Wave downtown on Central Parkway.

Why puppets?  "It's a crossroads of the arts, a unique art form that is in a Renaissance worldwide," said Madcap artistic director John Lewandowski, who has been in discussions with CCO music director Mischa Santora since 2008.  Only the mother and son (Amahl) will be real people.  The Three Kings will be large puppets.

The setting (designed by David Fichter) will be present day Cincinnati, with a cityscape as the background, said director Irina Niculescu, who outlined the concept.  The story of Amahl will transpire as the dream of a crippled boy, who when he wakens, discovers that he has been healed.

"Amahl" was premiered live on Christmas Eve, 1951 by NBC Opera Theatre from NBC studios in Rockefeller Center in New York as the debut production of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame.”  An instant success, it was the first made-for-TV opera and aired annually until 1966, when Menotti, unhappy with a new production, withdrew permission for further telecasts.  It is arguably the most frequently performed opera in history and has been heard and seen in countless venues before and since leaving the airwaves (the author remembers playing in the orchestra for a performance by the original NBC cast on tour in Kentucky).
Interestingly, the now classic opera about a crippled boy (Amahl) and his widowed mother who are visited by The Three Kings on their way to Bethlehem, has several connections to Ohio and Cincinnati history.  The original Amahl, boy soprano Chet Allen, was a member of the Columbus Boychoir (founded in Columbus in 1937, re-located to Princeton, New Jersey in 1950, and renamed the American Boychoir in 1960).

The conductor who led the "Symphony of the Air" (also known as the NBC Symphony Orchestra, created for Toscanini) and a later run of "Amahl" at New York City Opera was Thomas Schippers, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1970-75.   Finally, the conductor who led the Philharmonia Orchestra for the 1978 production of "Amahl" featuring famed soprano Teresa Stratas was Jesus Lopez-Cobos, CSO music director from 1985-2001.

The music of "Amahl" (less than an hour long) is lush and romantic in the tradition of Giacomo Puccini, with lots of instrumental color (star turns for the oboe), lively dancing and real emotional impact:  Amahl's poverty-stricken mother, when she learns the three kings intend to present their lavish gifts to a newborn child, grows desperate and attempts to steal some of their gold as they are sleeping, but is caught in the act.  When the king Melchior forgives her and explains who the child is, she regrets her act and returns the gold with the wish that she had a gift of her own to send, whereupon Amahl offers his crutch, his sole possession.  Miraculously, he is cured and is allowed to continue on the journey with the kings to Bethlehem.

Having been asked to write an opera for Christmas, Menotti was reportedly stumped until he saw a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, "Adoration of the Magi," hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.