There aren’t many top-quality one-act operas in the classical repertoire, but Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” is unquestionably one of them.
Originally commissioned for NBC, “Amahl” premiered live on TV on Christmas Eve 1951, but Menotti always envisioned the opera having an existence outside the broadcast studio.
Lyric Opera of the North (LOON) is making something of a specialty of “Amahl.” Last weekend’s stagings at the Masonic Temple Theater in Duluth were LOON’s third in the past decade.
Plenty of children were in the audience Sunday — “Amahl” is one of those rare pieces that appeals to all ages — and a dozen squatted on the floor below the stage, spellbound.
Menotti wrote the libretto himself. It skillfully tells the story of the Three Kings on their way to see the infant Jesus, stopping for rest at the humble dwelling of a disabled shepherd boy and his impoverished mother.
Vocally the performance was consistently engaging. Vicki Fingalson brought a fulsome soprano to the pivotal part of the Mother, often singing conversationally but occasionally unleashing a thrilling triple-forte. Calland Metts, John Pierce and Gregory Rahming blended sonorously as the kings, catching their mix of gravity and genial approachability.
Crucial to any “Amahl,” though, is the title character, and Giulia Calland — a second-grader at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth — turned in something of a star performance. Acting with a maturity beyond her years, she was funny, sharp and touching as the character should be, and found a way to make her halting, crutch-assisted movements convincing across the hourlong performance.
Menotti’s vocal writing for Amahl makes few concessions to the youthfulness of the soloist, but Giulia was equal to it, nailing tricky entries and singing with a full-voiced confidence.
The 21-strong chorus of shepherd folk also made a ringing contribution — rhythmically precise in Menotti’s far-from-simple writing, and with crystal-clear enunciation of a wordy text while moving confidently about the stage.
The setting of Duluth’s Masonic Temple was virtually perfect. The handsomely wood-paneled interior imparted a warm glow to the acoustic, matching the rich palette of Menotti’s affectionately blended orchestration.
Ann Gumpper’s set design neatly suggested the home’s modest interior, and her clear production lines were mirrored in Susan Boorsma’s costumes, which contrasted the splendidly colored garb of the kings with the plain burlap of the shepherd community.
Director Jeffrey Madison blocked the action sensitively, and there was a marvelously fluid shepherd’s dance by Brianna Crockett and Ryo Munakata of Duluth-based Minnesota Ballet.
Conductor Dirk Meyer led an orchestra of 14 in a warm account of Menotti’s masterly score, with particularly colorful solos from oboist Brett Linski.
But teamwork was the overall watchword of this excellent LOON staging. It warmed the heart and charmed the musical senses, as any good production of “Amahl” should do.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic.