Holy snooze

Not just the shepherds count sheep in Amahl and the Night Visitors

There were two different performances happening the Saturday night I saw Deep Ellum Opera Theatre's production of Gian Carlo Menotti's holiday classic Amahl and the Night Visitors. One occurred when I closed my eyes, and it was easily the most charming of the twins--the voices of the performers were alternately powerful and tender, assured in their delivery, and sometimes spine-tingling in their conviction.

The second Amahl was an anemic imitation of the first, and unfortunately, it involved keeping my eyes open and matching visuals with vocals. Even considering the show's tinselly content, Deep Ellum Opera Theatre went overboard in terms of sheer disposable sentiment. From the cheap Christmas lights that double as a starry night over the raggedy hut of crippled Amahl and his mother to the dime-store wooden Three Kings who bestow their gifts on mama and child, this lethargic operetta is so desperately dependent on Menotti's score as to render anything more than a purely vocal performance an insult to the composer.

Of course, there's a history to Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors that makes it unique among operatic compositions. Gian Carlo Menotti had already earned lavish critical acclaim for his light operas in Italian and English when the television honchos at National Broadcasting Company (otherwise known as NBC-TV) commissioned the 40-year-old Menotti to compose a Christmas-flavored opera for a Christmas Eve broadcast.

Menotti did the deed in record time--it was a matter of mere weeks between making notes at the piano and broadcasting live from New York City as part of "NBC Television Opera Theatre."

Those were the days when the networks were sufficiently enchanted with broadcast technology to program truly cultural events. But Amahl and the Night Visitors was no centuries-old theatrical event squeezed down to the demands of two cameras and a live studio audience. It was an opera created to fit inside those borders. Menotti, who was by this time an Italian-American prosperous enough to afford a comfortable country home, worked diligently to provide daily NBC couriers with his vision of an opera that could be sold with cigarettes and detergent.

Television is an easy medium to scorn, especially when comparing it to theater. It's easy to forget that TV picked up the populist torch left behind by movies, which had in turn vulgarized the word "theater" once they overcame the performance halls of the major cities in popularity.

To put it simply, Gian Carlo Menotti leapt feet-first into a medium that many who travelled in his circles regarded as sacrilegious, the ultimate betrayal of a theater artist's integrity.

The libretto for Amahl and the Night Visitors feels accordingly hesitant and unambitious. Menotti claimed he received last-minute inspiration from viewing Hieronymus Bosch's painting "The Adoration of the Kings" in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The picture reminded him of the Christmas myth in his rural Italian childhood that corresponded with American children's Santa Claus ritual. Instead of one jolly, secular fat man, Menotti remembered three wise and reverent kings who deposited gifts in the home of lucky children while on their way to the most celebrated child of the season, the baby Jesus.

It's not only intriguing, but salutary, that Menotti should accept such a commercial bid for his talent and summon not some superficial overture to American Christmas consumerism, but a heartfelt fable out of his own foreign memory--and one that, shock of all shocks, actually has an indirect connection to Jesus Christ on a Christian holiday.

Unfortunately, although Menotti's heart was in the right place, the medium of opera didn't fit quite so comfortably into the burgeoning entertainment medium known as TV. I don't pretend to be an expert on opera, and I'm no purist when it comes to cross-pollinating different genres, but Amahl and the Night Visitors has a curiously boxed-in feel, its action and music never covering the vast terrain--geographical, temporal, and spiritual--that the great operas hopscotch over with assurance. Just like those hour-long dramas by Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky that played live on network television during the early days, Menotti's extremely short two-act work has modest moments of inspiration that only reinforce the claustrophobic feel of the whole. You can feel the characters pressured to stay in one place, the songs stunted so they never fly too far afield, the opera itself constricted to the point of inertia so it never violates the tiny frame of a TV screen.

The artistic crew at Deep Ellum Opera Theatre must surely have been cognizant of these limitations when they mounted Amahl and the Night Visitors. Actually, the show has become for DEOT the equivalent of Dallas Theater Center's A Christmas Carol and Fort Worth Dallas Ballet's The Nutcracker--a sturdy cash cow with an impressive pedigree. They've staged the opera every December for three years now. At the performance I saw, there were only about five empty seats at the Theatre on Elm Street, an attendance level that should grace all Dallas theaters.

Unfortunately, no one at DEOT seems able, or willing, to convert a television script into a rewarding evening of theater.

The audience was dutiful if not quite ecstatic with its applause as they watched the show. It's not just good manners that dictated this response from the generally well-heeled crowd--having witnessed several rows of brain-dead bluehairs leave in the middle of a scintillating Eartha Kitt concert at the Meyerson, I know there is no necessary connection between money and couth. I suspect the phenomenon at work here was something I call "box office shock"--a state of denial that won't let you admit the show you just paid $20 to see sucked.

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