>AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS by The Golden Apple Theatre Company

>reviewed by seow yien lein

>date: 22 dec 2000
>time: 9pm
>venue: chijmes hall
>rating: ***

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS is a one-act opera with a respectable history: written half a century ago for an NBC Christmas television special by prolific Italian-born composer, Gian-Carolo Menotti, it has since been played every year by scores of amateur and professional theatre groups up and down the United States, where it has become something of a holiday tradition. It is a groundbreaking work, being the first of its kind to be written specifically - and successfully - for the television. The most interesting aspect of Menotti's work, however, does not lie in the innovations it brings to a form of theatre many regard as posh or elitist. Rather, it is to be found in Menotti's successful resurrection and adaptation of a theatrical form that predominated seven-hundred years ago - the morality play of the Middle Ages.

Like its medieval ancestor, AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS relies heavily on Biblical motifs as well as on the use of spectacle, pageantry, and tableaux in its mediation of spiritual truths. Lasting slightly less than an hour, the action moves seamlessly from its opening scene to its conclusion, and it takes place on a single set, the spartan interior of a thatched hut; there are no stage curtains, and an announcement before the show warns the audience that there will not be a curtain call.

The opera has two main characters, the quasi-Biblical Amahl, a young boy lame in one leg, and his widowed mother; they live at the time of Christ's birth and, like the Shunamite woman and her son in the book of the Kings, are desperately poor. The show opens, however, on a light note: Amahl is a fairly typical young lad, possessing a healthy disregard for bedtime and a propensity for embellishing the truth (he once claimed to have seen a leopard with a woman's head.) His mother is highly sceptical at his latest sighting - "a star as large as a window" - but her exasperation turns to despair when she thinks about the empty cruse and their fireless hearth. Amahl, however, is upbeat enough about their prospects of survival and in one of the most affective scenes of the opera, convinces his mother that they cannot go hungry while he still has his pipe and "know(s) sweet tunes to set people dancing". They then retire, Amahl to his bed of hay by the door and his mother to a wooden bench.

At this point the quiet of the hall is gradually replaced by the solemn strains of singing men who, moving from the back of the hall, finally emerge as three gorgeously arrayed kings - bearing their famous gifts - and their single turbaned page. There is a slight to-do when Amahl slams the door thrice in their face - the poor boy can't believe his eyes and in one of the opera's funniest lines, intones to his mother: "There are three (kings) and one of them is black!" That little mix-up over, the three kings chorus a "Good evening!" and step into the wretched hovel which the peasants call home.

>>'AMAHL is able to convey a sense of the spiritual and a measure of feel-good charm without having to trouble either conscience or intellect - not bad at all for sixty minutes of Christmas entertainment'

The spectacle of three sumptuously apparelled kings (including the Ethiopian monarch who had flummoxed Amahl) arranging themselves and their precious gifts in the midst of sordid poverty is one of the most striking images of the play and goes some way to suggesting how startling and extraordinary Christ's nativity must have been. Indeed, what distinguishes AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS from the morality play is a fascinating juxtaposition of Amahl, a crippled boy born to absolute poverty, and Christ, the new-born King: when the kings describe the child they are seeking in verses reminiscent of the prophet Isaiah ("his eyes are sad, his hands are poor as poor he was born") Amahl's mother replies in asides that almost fully echo the poignant description they use - only the boy she knows who fits this description is not Christ, but her own son. The kings subsequently indicate their desire to rest there for the night before resuming their search on the morrow.

Things heat up when Amahl's mother then decides that her own son is in greater need of their gold than the child for whom it is intended - why should they, she reasons, give it all to someone they don't even know when her little hut could be kept warm all the day with just a handful of the stuff, not to mention the world of good it could do for her poor crippled boy. She starts to crawl towards the gold, but just as she catches up a fistful of coins from the pot, the page wakes up and snatches her hand crying thief. An ugly brawl between them ensues, with Amahl doing his level best to fight on the side of his unrepentant mother, and the three kings stunned by the turn of events. One of the kings finally collects himself and stops the fighting by telling the widow that she can keep the gold - for the One to whom they are going will not rule his kingdom through the toil of his subjects, but through love and compassion. Overwhelmed by the great goodness of this child, the widow insists on returning the gold and Amahl on offering something of his own to Him. When the impecunious Amahl decides to give his crutch - his sole means of support - to the baby Christ, a miracle occurs: he finds that his bad leg is completely healed, and that he can now walk, leap, dance.

AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS was successful chiefly because, like the best medieval plays, it inspired a primitive awe and the sense that what was taking place on stage was something larger than the immediate action, and infinitely more significant. A strong cast all round also ensured that the hour at CHIJMES passed by very quickly - Cynthia Heininger, in particular, imbued the role of Amahl's mother with just the right touch of maternal fussiness or pathos as the situation required. Best of all, she and the engaging Jessica Anne Fritz, who played Amahl, had a great deal of chemistry that made a number of the mother-and-son scenes quite moving affairs. On the musical side of things, Alfred Anand on the keyboard did justice to Menotti's score and all the characters sang clearly.

The only charges that can be brought against last week's performance must therefore be aimed at the libretto itself: the show doesn't always get away with the coupling of modern-day levity - bits of the libretto sound sitcom-ish - and serious-sounding operatic music ('Time Out' magazine had previously dubbed it "a children's opera".) More important, however, is the fact that Menotti's treatment of poverty and the resort to miracle is too reductive in its treatment of life's spiritual complexities on this side of the bourn. The devil, after all, features prominently in a great deal of morality plays, along with a host of lesser nasty creatures. Even the late Medieval painting from which Menotti took his inspiration for the work, Hieronymous Bosch's 'The Adoration of the Magi', has the disturbing figure of a half-naked man with a sore in his leg in the background (some have interpreted his presence as that of the Antichrist.) But in a secular age, AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS remains a theatrical success for the very reasons that make its didactic medieval counterpart anachronistic: it is able to convey a sense of the spiritual and a measure of feel-good charm without having to trouble either conscience or intellect - not bad at all for sixty minutes of Christmas entertainment.