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Greg Hettmansberger
Dane101, December 2010

It’s not a brand new performance, but I did discover the best version I’ve yet heard of Menotti’s perennial classic “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Naxos released this 2006 performance a couple of years ago as part of its “American Opera Classics” series, and the story of the widow and crippled boy whose lives are changed when the Three Wise Men drop in on their way to Bethlehem is lovingly realized by treble Ike Hawkersmith and cast along with the Nashville Symphony under Alastair Willis. The CD includes a nice bonus of the rarely heard “My Christmas,” Menotti’s 1987 work for chorus and instrumental ensemble. A real bargain.



Ted Ayala
Crescenta Valley Weekly, December 2010

A classic Christmas favorite since it premiered on NBC in the early 1950s, Menotti’s Amahl has surprisingly not been often recorded. This excellent new recording on the budget Naxos more than makes amends for this drought. All the artists involved are superb, as is the Naxos sound. To have such a fine recording is reason enough to be thankful this Christmas. That it should be budget priced to boot is a Christmas miracle in and of itself. If you can enjoy monaural sound, be sure to also find the original RCA recording with Thomas Schippers at the helm. [On Naxos Historical 8.111350-61 from January 2011 - Ed.]



Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, February 2010

Christmas Eve 1951, and the world’s first television opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, is aired in the US. NBC, who commissioned the work, turned it into a festive tradition, screening it every Christmas until 1966. Here in the UK the BBC broadcast a live version in December 1955 and a filmed one in 1959. A third production, directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by the late Richard Hickox, was aired in 2002. The latter would be most welcome on DVD or Blu-ray, as Hickox never got round to recording Amahl as part of his Menotti cycle for Chandos. For now this all-American version from Naxos has no rivals, with the exception of the original cast recording—in mono—conducted by Thomas Schippers (RCA Gold Seal 6485).

Menotti’s opera has the usual iconography of Christmas—the star ‘as large as a window and with a glorious tail’, the three Kings bearing gifts and the shepherds—with the crippled boy Amahl recalling Tiny Tim in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. The opera’s narrative, direct and unencumbered, is conveyed in music of great charm and simplicity; just listen to Amahl’s artless pipe-playing at the outset and his wide-eyed wonderment at the strange star in the night sky. Contrast that with the declamatory—and dissonant—piano chords associated with his exasperated mother. It’s a reassuring and familiar scene that also speaks of another—more innocent—age.

The boy treble Ike Hawkersmith is a convincing Amahl, combining good diction with a strong sense of character. Kirsten Gunlogson also makes a good impression as his mother, her voice big but not overwhelmingly so, her delivery clear and even. The recorded sound is very immediate—for that read closely miked—and some listeners may feel it’s a touch too bright. On the plus side this performance never slides into sentimentality, even when Amahl comforts his distraught mother in ‘Don’t cry, Mother dear’ (tr. 5). Their voices blend reasonably well in the touching ‘good nights’ that follow, the orchestra modulating into a stately, rather exotic, processional that heralds the arrival of the three Kings (tr.6).

Kevin Short has a big, imperious voice that suits the role of Balthazar, rather dwarfing his companions when they sing of their arduous journey. There is more than a hint of the swaying ox-cart of Mussorgsky’s Bydlo in the orchestral accompaniment at this point, a vivid evocation of their long and burdensome trek. The Nashville band’s playing under Alastair Willis is alert and upfront throughout; sample those scurrying pizzicato strings as Amahl tells his mother who is at the door, the Kings’ voices blending in sonorous unison (tr. 8). Their singing surely suggests a distant, churchly chant entirely appropriate to these holy men.

Indeed, Menotti’s score brings together so many different strands and styles in a most original and refreshing way. There’s a perky little march as the visitors enter the hut and simple piano flourishes accompany them as they warm themselves by the fire (tr. 9). The excitable Kaspar—who also happens to be deaf—is well sung by Dean Anthony. Ditto Kevin Short as Balthazar, who responds to Amahl’s cross-questioning with a mixture of patience and weariness (tr. 10). The interaction between Kaspar’s parrot and Amahl injects a note of humour, with King Melchior (Todd Thomas) cranking it up a notch or three as he explains that the mystery box contains all his worldly goods—and his treasured supply of liquorice (tr.11).

The close recording is not a major problem here, although the plucked basses that accompany Amahl’s mother, Melchior and Balthazar in tr. 14 sound jumbo-sized and rather muffled. That said, this trio certainly rises to a powerful climax, from which shepherds—laden with food—take their cue. There’s some lusty a cappella singing here, but the combined Nashville and Chicago choruses are much too close for comfort. However, the sinuous orchestral dance that follows—Boléro, anyone?—is beautifully done, with some delectable playing from the Nashville woodwinds (tr. 18). Balthazar’s thanks and the shepherds’ lyrical farewell are amongst the lovely moments when lingering doubts about this performance are dispelled and all caveats are forgotten. Quite magical.

The mother’s turmoil in tr. 20, as she ponders the Kings’ gold and what it could mean for her and Amahl, is sung with a Janácek-like intensity that reminds me so much of the late—and much lamented—Elisabeth Söderström in Sir Charles Mackerras’s Decca recording of Jenufa. But then Amahl is such an eclectic work, and I daresay most listeners will hear other echoes too. For once the immediacy of this recording pays dividends, adding real frisson to the mother’s anguish and the orchestral set-to that follows when she is caught trying to steal the visitors’ gold (tr. 21). Hawkersmith is most affecting as he vigorously—and physically—defends his mother, his repeated cries of ‘Don’t you dare’ (tr.22) a telling vocal counterpoint to his struggle with the Page.

One of the opera’s most potent messages—that of forgiveness—is brought home by Melchior, who tells Amahl’s mother that she can keep the gold (tr. 23). It is an aria of tenderness and compassion, radiantly scored. The other must surely be selflessness through the act of giving, as epitomised by Amahl’s spontaneous offer of his crutch as a gift to the Christ child. In doing so he finds that he can walk, a moment greeted first with awe and astonishment by the Kings and then with jubilation (tr. 24). The opera moves to a close as Amahl persuades his mother to let him accompany the three Kings to Bethlehem. Gunlogson sings with warmth and affection here, the parting duet accompanied by some of the loveliest music on this disc (tr. 26). The choruses return as the procession—Amahl in tow—resumes its momentous journey.

The Nashville chorus is centre-stage in My Christmas, which Menotti sets to his own texts in 1987. They sound remarkably bold and full-bodied here, their singing interspersed with music of chamber-like proportions. There is much to enjoy here, not least the ecstatic climaxes and Menotti’s unusual orchestration. Listen to the sudden instrumental fragments that recall Britten, and to the rhythms that hint at the Bernstein of Chichester Psalms. That said, the piece has a strong identity of its own, and I can’t imagine why we don’t hear it more. Oh, and a bottle of celebratory brandy for the Nashville horn player who rounds off the work so eloquently.

This Amahl is a real cracker, deserving of its place at the top of the tree.



Michael Mark
American Record Guide, November 2009

I’ve rediscovered Menotti. The man wrote melody and created characters with honest emotions, despite occasional melodramatic indulgences…The Naxos performance has a nice ensemble spirit to it. Young Mr Hawkersmith’s voice initially struck me as strained, but he soon becomes easy on the ears and sings with appropriate innocence that avoids idiocy. Ms Gunlogson’s mezzo is a pleasure to hear. She sings and acts like an overprotective mother—an attractive strong, lyrical mezzo who might do some of the Mozart roles justice. The kings and their page aren’t big vocal standouts, yet they are formidable figures…Diction is first-rate for Amahl, including the chorus. Orchestral playing and conducting for both works is also praiseworthy. Thanks to Naxos for allowing listeners to hear fine American orchestras that are often ignored.



Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, June 2009

The Nashville has recorded two operas under Alastair Willis: Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges (8.660215) and Menotti’s TV perennial, Amahl and the Night Visitors (8.669019). The Ravel is a masterpiece, and not the least impressive aspect of Nashville’s performance is the fine singing. Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne does a fine job with the composer’s Shéhérazade on the same disc. The Menotti is also well performed.



Henry Fogel
Fanfare, May 2009

Alastair Willis shapes the music lovingly and with energy, and the Nashville Symphony plays with both skill and involvement. This recording is also the first to give the buyer a bonus—a 12-minute choral work dating from 1987 called My Christmas that represents Menotti at his most touching and eloquent…If you want a modern-sounding Amahl, this is clearly preferable to the only other stereo recording, particularly because of the livelier and more colorful conducting, and because of the choral bonus.



Drew Minter
Opera News, April 2009

For more than fifty years, Gian Carlo Menotti’s yuletide gem, Amahl and the Night Visitors, has endured, evolving into a regular holiday offering…Amahl plays to our Christmas generosity of spirit, telling the story of a poor boy giving up his only possession, his crutch, to a newborn king. There is a charming naturalness to the interactions of Amahl with the three kings, who relate the new king’s birth and destiny. And Menotti provides many lovely musical moments—appealing woodwind interludes, two attractive choruses, an episodic shepherds’ dance.

The vocal music sounds most affecting when it is most declaimed. As Amahl’s mother, Kirsten Gunlogson brings rich mezzo tone to the role and terrific diction in the recitative portions. Menotti’s heavy orchestration makes her aria, “All that gold,” a bit heavy-handed and hard to comprehend. Boy soprano Ike Hawkersmith handles Amahl’s speech-song well and makes good use of his chest voice without going overly nasal. Character tenor Dean Anthony has the most dramatic flair as King Kaspar, while Todd Thomas and Kevin Short contribute gravity with their sonorous baritones. Menotti’s excellent sense of craft comes through in the quartet of the Mother and Kings, tautly composed polyphony, if a little uninspired melodically. Above all, Menotti’s dramatic sense of orchestration is clear and to the point, and the Nashville Symphony under Alastair Willis brings out all of its colors with direct sense.

Menotti’s anthem My Christmas also receives an attractive performance on this disc. Chorus master George Mabry gets a pleasant head-voice mix from the men’s sections of the Nashville Symphony choristers.



Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, March 2009

…The much-admired recording of the Royal Opera House production, under the composer's supervision, is no longer available. This new recording now holds the field…The leading role is for a boy treble, with a range including top A. Ike Hawkersmith is attractive vocally and brings with him his experience in plays and films. Kirsten Gunlogson is the demanding and unreasonable mother, plausibly characterised. The Three Kings make an effective team…



Infodad.com, January 2009

Opera is one medium that can bring religious texts and sentiments effectively to life, and Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors has been doing just that in the Christmas season for well over half a century. The work remains immensely popular, and was created to be so: it was the first opera ever written for television. Its simplicity of story, staging and music make it a favorite with amateur groups…Well sung, well played and nicely recorded… Menotti’s short choral work, My Christmas, rounds out the CD nicely and keeps its focus squarely on the Christmas season.



Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, January 2009

Menotti’s seasonal opera gets a welcome outing on Naxos with an all-American cast who give superb commitment to the score. The end product is very satisfying and a welcome addition to the work’s discography.

Italian-born Menotti spent most of his career in the United States and he is most renowned for his operatic work.  Amahl is the most famous, but he also wrote popular works like The Saint of Bleecker Street together with vehicles for Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo, testifying to how highly regarded he was by singers.  Amahl is his most popular work and has enjoyed the most exposure, written as it was for television.  According to the helpful booklet note for this release it was shown on NBC every year between 1951 and 1966, together with several later productions and some runs on the BBC.  It’s not difficult to explain its popularity: the small cast, unassuming stage requirements and seasonal appeal make it practical, while its music is remarkably lyrical for a post-war opera, and has all the attractiveness of a festive treat.

The story is straightforward: Amahl is a crippled boy who has problems with telling the truth.  He lives in poverty with his mother near Bethlehem.  One night they are visited by the three kings on their way to see the Christ-child.  Amahl’s mother is tempted to steal some of their gold to help provide for the family, but when she is caught the kings forgive her because the child they are going to see has no need of earthly treasures.  Amahl gives his crutch to the kings as a gift for the child and he is miraculously healed in consequence.  During the final moments he leaves with the kings to go and worship the child.

Menotti’s achievement is to tell the story without lapsing into sentiment.  He unstintingly portrays the desperate poverty of their circumstances, while contrasting this with the child-like optimism of Amahl himself.  The atmosphere of a hot middle-eastern night is conveyed effectively too through, for example, Amahl’s shepherd pipes which open the piece and which are heard at various points throughout.  The rustic dance which the shepherds put on to entertain the kings paints a good scene, as does the oriental march which accompanies the kings’ first appearance.  He also uses operatic conventions convincingly: Amahl has to re-visit the door various times to convince his mother that the kings are outside. The repetitions this involved reinforce the musical and dramatic themes of the moment.  If the miracle scene at the end feels a bit peremptory then it rises to a convincing climax and prepares for a warmly satisfying conclusion.

The all-American cast are clearly fully convinced by this work and they give their all in performance.  No libretto is provided in the booklet, but the diction is so good that you won’t need it.    As Amahl, Ike Hawkersmith is a strong vocal presence and his characterisation changes convincingly from a somewhat irritating brat to a believer stirred by his experiences.  His aria about the family’s poverty (track 10) is very poignant, as is the scene where his mother later likens him to the Christ child (track 14).  Kirsten Gunlogson is suitably waspish as Mother, while she too is transformed into a convincing penitent after the theft scene.  The kings are all taken well, especially Kevin Short who brings an authoritative grandeur to his role as “the black King” (Amahl’s words).  The contributions of the chorus are expertly judged: the Shepherds’ roundel is very attractive because no-one takes themselves too seriously and everyone is convinced to act their part.  The orchestra pares down its textures very fittingly, held together capably by Alastair Wills, and the sound is immediate and close without being intrusive.

My Christmas is a rather sentimental setting for chorus of some of Menotti’s own words.  There isn’t much to it, but its textures are appealing: the chorus are accompanied by flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, harp and double bass, with a touching restraint at its climax.

Naxos have done well to bring such a strong performance to the catalogue at budget price.  It all adds up to a fine seasonal treat to be enjoyed with a cup of mulled wine and a mince pie.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2009

Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, with its Christmas festivities connections, has become the most popular opera written in the second half of the 20th century. The three Kings are on their long journey to see the Christ child, but, needing to rest for a while they come across a the house where there is a cripple boy, Amahl. While they are there he is miraculously restored to normal health and asks his mother if he could go with them on their journey. After initial reluctance she gives him her blessing and he joins their pilgrimage. In one act and requiring only a chamber group as accompaniment, the opera has found favour around amateur ensembles well-able to perform it. Vocally it demands little, though on stage the task of projecting the boy’s voice is difficult, but is easily overcome in the studio. Maybe I am too used to the ‘hooty’ sound of British boy trebles, and young Ike Hawksworth has a soft and smooth timbre. The Alaskan-born mezzo, Kirsten Gunglogson, makes a good grumpy mother, with Dean Anthony, Todd Thomas and Kevin Short are a sonorous and nicely blended trio of Kings. Diction is excellent throughout, and the engineers have achieved an ideal balance. For such a popular work, it has made few appearances on disc, and I would commend this one to you. The release is completed by My Christmas, a score from 1987 to the composer’s own words and brings a rather sad tinge to a happy festivity. Again only a few instruments are involved which makes the choir drawn from the Nashville Symphony Chorus a little heavy though vocally excellent.



Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, December 2008

RECOMMENDED

At long last here's a modern day recording of Amahl and the Night Visitors! American composer Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) created a Christmas classic when he wrote this endearing little one-act opera for the NBC Television Network back in 1951. Inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Adoration of the Magi, the story is about a poverty-stricken mother and her crippled son Amahl who are visited by the Three Kings on their way to worship the Christ child. They tell her of their gifts for the babe, including gold, which the mother later tries to steal, only to be caught by the kings' page. But the kings take pity on her, telling her to keep it, and Amahl offers his crutch as a gift in its place. A miracle then occurs when Amahl suddenly discovers he can walk. The opera ends as he goes off with the kings to offer thanks to the baby Jesus.

Menotti's sentimental, but affecting libretto, exquisite melodies and sincere, straightforward approach to this work certainly explain its past popularity. They also undoubtedly assure it will remain a Christmas favorite of young and old alike for years to come. Highlights include a lovely opening pastoral prelude followed by an amusing exchange between mother and child. In it she chides him for lying when he tells her about a miraculous star in the sky and the arrival of the kings.

Then there's a delightful, mini-aria by King Kaspar who has a parrot and carries a curious box that piques Amahl's curiosity. The ensemble piece "Have you seen a child" (mother and kings) and a capella shepherd's chorus "Emily! Emily!" along with the exotic dance that follows, find Menotti at his best. The emotionally powerful miracle scene where Amahl walks is admittedly more dramatic when seen as well as heard on DVD. But with music this great, the CD is almost as effective.

As a bonus Naxos has included Menotti’s little known My Christmas, dating from 1987. It's an appealing piece for chorus and chamber ensemble featuring flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, harp and double bass. With words also by Gian Carlo, it sounds somewhat impressionistic [track-28, beginning at 08:44], and you'll find it a welcome relief from the usual holiday musical fare.

Boy soprano Ike Hawkersmith sings the role of Amahl to perfection with a childlike innocence that includes an endearing hint of mischievousness. Kirsten Gunlogson is ideal as the mother, and tenor Dean Anthony, baritone Todd Thomas and bass-baritone Kevin Short are very convincing kings with an admirable assist from baritone Bart LeFran as their page. Conductor Alastair Willis conjures up sterling support for the soloists from members of the Chicago and Nashville Symphony Choruses and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

The recordings are generally good with a generous, but well focused soundstage, which assures the words are perfectly understandable. This is important because no texts are included with the album notes. While the orchestral sound is superb, some may notice a slight edge to the voices, but not to a degree that detracts from this outstanding holiday offering.






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3:09:44 PM, 2 August 2014
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