Resonance Works’ 2019 holiday offering is a double bill of a concert of music by four female composers in the first half, and the sweet and heartwarming short opera Amahl and the Night Visitors in the second.
The opening concert features work by contemporary American composers Jennifer Higdon, Jessie Montgomery, and Nancy Galbraith, as well as a piece by the early 20th-century French composer Cécile Chaminade. The compositions by the latter two were highlights of this section of the evening. Nancy Galbraith has created a new arrangement of her haunting piece O Magnum Mysterium for the Resonance Works ensemble, and the result is a rich, luscious, and transcendent blend of voice and orchestra with a lyrical and expressive solo on flute played by Lindsey Goodman. Goodman also gives a bravura performance of Chaminade’s Flute Concertino, a technically challenging piece that allows her to put her sensitive musicality and exquisite phrasing on display.
Amahl and the Night Visitors is a mid-20th century fable related to the Christmas story that was written by Gian Carlo Menotti and first performed on television in 1951. In it, the impoverished Amahl and his mother receive a midnight visit from the Three Kings who are bringing gifts to the newborn Christ. They generously offer what little hospitality they can to their rich visitors; but when Amahl’s mother sees how much gold the Kings have, she is tempted to steal it in order to get the medical attention Amahl needs for his lame leg. She is caught in the act of theft, and after the Kings explain that the Child they are traveling to visit will be a champion of the poor, she returns the gold and Amahl is moved to gift his crutch to the Child. His act of selfless generosity prompts a miracle – he is cured, and the Kings invite him to join him on their pilgrimage.
Stage director Haley Stamats has chosen to set this fable in a present day city park, where Amahl and his mother, having been rendered recently homeless, are struggling to survive on the streets. This is a choice that sharpens the political edge of Menotti’s tale, reminding us of how radical and anti-establishment Christ’s message of charity and equality was and remains. But the scenic design and staging also unfortunately require the audience member to mistrust either her eyes or ears in order to find a coherent logic to the world of the play: for example, at the play’s beginning, the mother adds wood to a fire in a large steel drum but then almost immediately sings that she has “not a stick of wood for the fire,” the lyrics frequently reference an “inside” that doesn’t exist, and when the Three Kings arrive we are required to imagine that somehow this city park also has a door that can be knocked upon. I hate to be that person, but honestly it’s a little hard to stay with a production when what you see is being so patently contradicted by what you hear.
What does keep you with this production, nevertheless, are the fine performances, in particular the endearing and winning turn by young Emmanual Tsao as Amahl. Tsao not only has a clear and precise soprano voice, but is a delight as an actor to boot: he has an emotional presence and naturalness of reaction that make each moment feel fresh, and he totally sells his surprise and wonder at the miracle cure in the fable’s climax. The adults in this production also deliver solid performances: Olga Perez Flora gives the mother a steely resolve, but you also sense her anguish over the desperateness of their situation, and the Three Kings (Rob Frankenberry, Christopher Scott, and Jonathan Stuckey) differentiate themselves from one another with lovely character touches – Frankenberry, in particular, is endearing and comical as the hard-of-hearing King Kaspar. A lively ensemble brings both vocal and physical finesse to the opera’s big ensemble scene, with dance and even juggling skills on display among the other homeless “shepherds” of the chorus.