About this Recording
8.669019 - MENOTTI, G.C.: Amahl and the Night Visitors / My Christmas (Willis, Mabry)

Gian Carlo Menotti (1911–2007)
Amahl and the Night Visitors • My Christmas


Born in Cadegliano, Italy, on 7 July 1911, Gian Carlo Menotti occupies a singular place in twentieth-century music theatre. A graduate of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute in 1933, Menotti’s first opera Amelia Goes to the Ball was presented at the Metropolitan Opera in 1938. In 1947, his tragedy The Medium, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, enjoyed a run of 212 performances on Broadway, where it was paired with the almost equally well received comedy The Telephone. 1950 saw the première of his finest opera, The Consul, the success of which was consolidated with the television opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954). Maria Golovin was less successful when it was staged at the 1958 International Exposition in Brussels. Thereafter Menotti’s energies were directed as much toward administration as composition, notably with the founding of the Spoleto Festival, which took place on an American Air Force Base at Charleston in 1977. He nonetheless broke new ground with the television opera Labyrinth (1963), while his standing among singers was demonstrated in such operas as La Loca (1979), a farewell vehicle for Beverly Sills, and Goya (1986), written for Placido Domingo. Resident for much of the time in Scotland from 1973, Menotti continued an active career in opera (he was habitually his own librettist, as well as director or supervisor of many of his own productions) until his death in Monte Carlo on 1 February 2007.

No post-war opera has enjoyed exposure comparable to Amahl and the Night Visitors, commissioned for television by NBC and first televised by that network on Christmas Eve 1951. Although it was subsequently staged at Bloomington in February 1952, conducted by Thomas Schippers, with whom Menotti enjoyed a long working relationship, the opera’s televisual potential has been explored in a number of subsequent presentations. Between 1951 and 1966, it was shown each year on NBC on or around Christmas Eve. In 1963 it was remade by NBC and with an all-new cast, a production shown for the next three years. Then in 1978, a new production was filmed by NBC, partly on location in the Holy Land. Meanwhile the BBC commissioned two productions of its own, the first broadcast in December 1955 with the second following four years later. Menotti himself directed another filmed version as late as 1996. All of these attest to the appeal that Menotti’s unassuming stage-work has exerted over audiences for almost six decades.

Set near Bethlehem in the first century, and inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Adoration of the Magi, the story of Amahl and the Night Visitors offers a meaningful take on one aspect of the Christmas Story. Amahl is a disabled boy who has a problem with telling the truth. Because of this his mother does not believe him when he tells her of an amazing star that can be seen in the night sky. Later, there is a knock at the door and his mother tells him to see who it is. He is amazed when he sees three splendidly dressed kings. They tell Amahl and his mother of their long journey to give gifts to a wondrous child, and that they would like to rest. She goes to fetch her neighbours, so the kings may be entertained properly. Later that night, being poor and sickened at the thought of her crippled child becoming a beggar, she attempts to steal some of the gold, but is thwarted by the Page. Upon seeing Amahl’s spirited defence of his mother, and realising her motives for the attempted theft, Melchior says she may keep the gold, as the Holy Child needs no earthly power or wealth to build his kingdom. The mother wishes to send a gift but has nothing to send: neither does Amahl except his crutch, but as he offers it his leg is suddenly no longer lame, and he joyfully goes with the kings to see the child and give thanks for being healed.

After an orchestral introduction with the sound of shepherds piping, we encounter Amahl reluctant to leave the window and go to bed [1] because of the giant star in the sky, which annoys his mother all the more [2]. She reminds him of his many ‘tall stories’ [3], and worries too about his disability and their hardship [4], while he consoles her with the thought that a beggar’s lot could yet be a happy one [5]. At this point the three kings make their entrance, telling of their arduous journey and its purpose [6]; the mother asks who is knocking at the door, and is increasingly angry at what Amahl describes [7]. She herself goes to the door and is astonished to be greeted by the kings, offering them what hospitality she has [8]. The kings make their entrance to a brief interlude, regretting their stay must be brief as they have to keep the star in sight [9]. Amahl asks Balthazar if he is a real king, and explains that their livestock have either been sold or have died; he asks Kaspar if he is a real king and is taken aback by the parrot that answers for him [10]. He then asks Melchior about his box, which the king explains holds his worldly possessions—and his liquorice [11]. The mother returns and tells Amahl to summon the shepherds [12]. She is entranced by the gifts and asks for whom they are intended [13], wistfully likening their descriptions of the Christ child to that of her own son [14].

The shepherds now arrive [15], singing an unaccompanied roundel, but are initially apprehensive of whom they encounter [16]. They have brought fruit, meat and vegetables for the kings, who gratefully accept them [17] before the shepherds join in the dance [18]. Balthazar thanks them and says they must continue their journey, Amahl asking if they know of a magic stone that could cure a crippled boy [19]. His mother ponders on the kings’ wealth and on what a fraction of it could provide for her son [20]. She tries to steal some gold but is caught by the Page [21], whom Amahl threatens with violence and says that he should be the one to be punished [22]. Moved by his entreaties, Melchior tells her to keep the gold as she and her son need it more than the child that they seek [23]. The mother senses the importance of the child, while Amahl offers his crutch as if in recompense [24]. He suddenly realises he can walk unaided—they and the kings uniting in praise of this miracle [25]. Amahl asks to go with the kings to offer thanks to the child; his mother overcomes her initial reluctance and gives her blessing [26]. He then departs with the kings as his mother and the shepherds bid them farewell [27].

Although his main achievement lies in opera, the 1980s and 1990s found Menotti drawn increasingly to choral music. Among the most attractive is My Christmas [28], a setting of his own text first heard at Christmas 1987. The words themselves are typical in juxtaposing the homely and the visionary, as is the pathos that permeates the music. In this respect, the accompaniment, for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, harp and double bass, plays a not inconsiderable part, voices and instruments alternating in a sequence of verses and refrains, before coming together in the closing stages to effect an apotheosis which feels the more touching for its very restraint.

Richard Whitehouse

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