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Review: Union Avenue produces touching, well sung 'Amahl'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 11, 2010 - Union Avenue Opera, which we have come to associate with substantial summertime fare -- Bizet, Purcell, Mozart et al -- celebrated the Christmas season last night with what is fast becoming an annual treat, Gian Carlo Menotti's delightful Christmas jewel, "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Scott Schoonover, the company's artistic director, expects the tradition to continue; he has already scheduled the show times for 2011.

This tiny (one hour long) and deeply lyrical opera was conceived for a nationally televised performance on Christmas Eve. That was in 1951 -- a time when the arts were far more deeply prized. After several decades of comparative neglect, it has been slowly becoming a staple of many amateur troupes over the past few years. It deserves to be better known.

Union Avenue's impressive version will be repeated this evening at 5 and Sunday afternoon at 3. The work weaves an imaginative and imaginary tale of the Epiphany story -- the travels of those three kings to Bethlehem. They and their trove of riches are invited into the peasant hovel of Amahl and his mother. (Their camels remain outside and unseen, a wise decision, given Union Avenue Christian Church's limited performance space. But the production does make excellent use of the church itself, using two of its aisles for the kings' arrival and later for the shepherds' entrance and exit.)

Menotti is an excellent melodist, unfailingly lyrical, and he is a splendid craftsman to boot. The opera opens with an achingly beautiful 17-note theme, which later serves as an interlude at the opera's center. That melody recurs as an accompaniment to the opera's climax -- the kings' declaration of its (and Christianity's) central theme: Christ as a bringer of love and peace, "and the keys to his kingdom belong to the poor." (This is an explicitly Christian opera, not a mere holiday pleasure.)

Menotti is also a master of the small scale: commissioned to compose a musical work that had to fit into an hour of commercial TV time, he has managed to include a remarkable variety of musical inventions: arias, duets, quartets, choruses, a lively dance and a march (most with instrumental accompaniment but some charmingly a cappella). He has produced a miniature masterpiece, much like his life partner, Samuel Barber's, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," written four years before.

Committed to sharing the work's vocal wealth, Union Avenue has signed on two Amahls for this brief run. Last night's delightful lad was John Schultz; he will reprise his performance Sunday at 3. Tonight, the role will be filled by Ricky Johnson. Schoonover is sensible enough to have two boys available, so either could fill in for the other should he become ill or, heaven forbid, his voice break!

Boy sopranos possess about the most lovely and the purest sounds yet invented (sorry, Christine Brewer), and John handled his vocal duties admirably, with only a very occasional stretch to a high note. His mother's part is being sung again this year by mezzo soprano Holly Wrensch, who brought a vibrant, lustrous tone and good acting skills to the role. Holly first appeared with the company in its 2003 production of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."

The three kings were sung by tenor Clark Sturdevant (a fine and comical Kaspar), bass-baritone Todd Payne (the deeply regal Balthazar). and baritone Robert Reed (a wonderful Melchior). The cast was supported by a small orchestra with a particularly fine woodwinds choir. Even without the accompaniment, these singers more than held their own in those several a cappella moments. The shepherds' chorus was a particular pleasure, their well-blended voices supplemented by some lovely dancing by Leah Korn and Jason Stotz.

I am not a wholly enthusiastic supporter of super-titles, especially for an opera sung in English in a small space and by a cast with particularly clear diction. It always seems to me to distract an audience from the musical pleasures on show by demanding some mental multi-tasking. But the "Amahl" text (which Menotti also composed) is remarkably poetic; it was useful to see that highly imaginative verse on the wall. I stand (or sit) corrected!

The Union Avenue Opera Theatre has evolved impressively since 1995. Founder Schoonover had a vision for "an opera company that would offer professional opportunities for gifted , emerging artists." In the company's 16 years, that laudable and high goal has been pretty consistently achieved. This "Amahl " provides ample further evidence. Next July and August, it will offer Puccini's "Turandot," Rossini's "La Cenerentola" and Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" — yet another irresistible operatic collection.

Ticket prices for the remaining two performances of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" range from patron level ($47) to general admission ($25). Student Rush tickets go on sale one hour before each performance ($15). This is a show not to be missed.

Jamie Spencer is a freelance writer.

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