Posted by: Titus Presler | January 12, 2010

Grace Broadway’s modest “Amahl” excelled on Epiphany 1

The production of Amahl and the Night Visitors offered by Grace Episcopal Church on Broadway in Manhattan on the evening of the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 10, was moving and intriguing in a number of ways:

• Excellence: Strong singing and dramatic staging were key to how this presentation excelled in getting to the heart of the pathos of the opera.  Tami Petty was very fine as Amahl’s Mother, the best I’ve seen over a number of productions in the last several years.  Her voice is perfect for both the tenderness and towering passion of the role.  Especially effective was her coming out toward the audience during the centerpiece quartet with the Kings.  Joshua Parrillo’s Melchior and John Young’s Kaspar were good, and Alvin Crawford’s Balthazar was especially fine.  The Kings had an especially long processional route in this production, which helped to highlight the bleak profundity of their opening lines.  Lily XiaoXia Overmyer did well as Amahl, especially in the latter half of the opera.

• Modesty: Grace is a cardinal Manhattan parish with an excellent and generally well-funded music program, but this was a modest, pared-down production, clearly reflecting the current economic times and seeking to be accessible through offering the opera free to the public.  So there was no orchestra – not even an oboe soloist for Amahl’s pipe – but just the piano, played creditably by Director Patrick Allen, and no crowd of shepherds.  Nothing was expended on props either, the production taking place with just some chairs and a table in the choir, and there was no star projected on a high wall, a common Amahl item these days.  Grace’s expense doubtless centered on the paid singers, which is just where it should have been, and that obviously contributed to the quality of the production.

• Model for Parish Productions: So, despite the splendid surroundings of Grace’s James Renwick architecture, the production had the feel of what an average parish might aspire to put on – apart from paid singers, of course.  I had just a couple of quibbles in this regard.  The choir sang the Shepherds’ part, and I could understand cutting out the shepherds’ dance for the sake of saving on rehearsal costs, but parish productions often come off well with the shepherds being simply average parishioners who can carry a tune.  Recruiting shepherds from the congregation probably would have buttressed the regrettably light attendance this production drew, and a couple of them could have improvised a serviceable dance, thus not sacrificing the only carefree part of the opera.  It also would have been good to have dimmed the nave lights after the Kings’ arrival.  My other experiences of parish productions include one at my own parish at the time, Christ Church, Hamilton, Mass., in the early 80s, and one in 2009 at Manhattan’s Church of the Transfiguration (The Little Church Around the Corner).

• Epiphanytide Setting: It was striking that this Amahl occurred not in Advent, as most productions do, nor in Christmastide, nor on Epiphany itself, but in Epiphanytide, when for even much of the Christian world the dramas of Christmas are already a fading memory.  Staging it – resolutely and unapologetically – on Epiphany 1 sent a good message that Epiphany is not simply a single-day feast but a season of the showing forth of the light of Christ in the world.

• Evensong Setting: Rector Don Waring was very intentional about offering this Amahl during Choral Evensong at 4 p.m., and this was the first time I’d experienced Amahl staged in such a setting.  We sang “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,” had an Epiphany responsory and Psalm 72, a Short Lesson, a C. Villiers Stanford Magnificat, and then collects.  Don welcomed everyone, after which we all sang “We three kings” as the production was readied.  It was quite lovely to have the event close with a blessing and the singing of “What child is this?”  Incorporating Amahl into the worship life of a parish is an excellent idea, for it helps to highlight the opera’s powerful religious themes.  About 16 people from the Church of St. Simon the Cyrenian in New Rochelle, where I’m currently serving on a part-time basis, came into the city for the event, and they found the setting of worship to be just right.

Altogether this was a fine production, for which all who had the privilege of attending were grateful.

For a theological and missional reflection on Amahl, see this blog posting.

Footnote: Evidently Menotti felt the part of Amahl should always be taken by a boy, but in Grace’s production Lily XiaoXia Overmyer demonstrated that a girl can do just fine.  Here’s Menotti’s opinion on the matter: “It is the express wish of the composer that the role of Amahl should always be performed by a boy.  Neither the musical nor the dramatic concept of the opera permits the substitution of a woman costumed as a child.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: