Saturday, December 7, 2013 | Amahl and The Night Visitors
Notes researched and written by Joan Olsson
GIAN CARLO MENOTTI
1911 — 2007
Amahl and the Night Visitors — 1951
Gian Carlo Menotti, son of a prosperous coffee merchant and an accomplished musician, was born in Cadegliano, northern Italy, in 1911. By age 4 it became clear that the active pre-school student was musically gifted and he was provided piano lessons. At age 6 he began adding music to children's poems and by age 11 the youngster had written both the libretto and the music for a children's opera.
After studies at the Conservatory of Milan, Gian Carlo applied to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and arrived with a letter of recommendation from the Toscanini family. The audition committee heralded the 17-year-old Italian student as "gifted but unaccomplished and raw." Until his 1933 graduation (with honors) the young Italian juggled his life between music studies, concentrating on composition and learning and mastering English, and cultivating friendships with fellow students Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. He lived and worked with Barber until the latter's death in 1981.
Mary Louise Curtis Bok, Curtis Institute founder and publishing house heiress, became the 23-year-old graduate's chief patron, and arranged for the premiere of his first opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball. This one act "buffo" opera became an immediate hit, and a performance of "Amelia" was arranged by Mussolini to be held in Italy. Because the composer would not yield to Mussolini's request that he join the fascist movement, the opera was performed at a second rate theatre. Furthermore, Mussolini officials ordered all reviewers to write up the opera as "mediocre."
The homeland "snub" did not stop Menotti from retaining Italian citizenship, or from making the United States his home base for most of his life. Gian Carlo remained musically prolific, and became world famous and wealthy until his death in 2007 in Monaco at the age of 95. Awards and commissions were heaped on the composer, including two Pulitzer Prizes and a Kennedy Center Achievement in the Arts award in 1984. His repertoire includes 28 operas, several ballets, numerous choral works, a small Mass, a violin concerto, 2 piano concertos, a triple concerto, one symphony, a cycle of seven songs for vocalist and piano, and a stage play. He also collaborated with Samuel Barber on several joint projects.
Menotti's operatic style tends to follow the Romantic Era operatic styles of Puccini and Mussorgsky, but he also utilized the techniques inherent in Renaissance madrigals, atonal and polytonal dissonances, and the 12-tone scale. The composer was notably adept at transferring the traditional qualities of Italian operas to the American live stage as well as to radio and television.
Following seven successful operas Menotti was commissioned to write an opera for NBC television for a 1951 Christmas Eve performance. Frustrated, without an idea for a theme in his head, he chanced upon Hieronymus Bosch's painting, "Adoration of the Kings," in the New York Metropolitan Museum. In this one viewing, he "heard" a possible song of the three kings. Upon reflection, the story line gathered momentum and was off and running under the title Amahl and the Night Visitors. Since its television premiere, the opera has become a worldwide staple for yearly Christmas presentations.
A crippled shepherd boy, Amahl, lives with his mother near a shepherds' field. After observing a large, bright star in the sky, the boy next answers a knock on the door. Three kings are on the other side. They have been traveling a long distance to view a "unique" newborn in nearby Bethlehem. "It is a very special child," they claim, "who will create a kingdom greater than the gifts we bring to him." Hearing of the gold they carry, Amahl's desperately poor mother steals some of it. Caught in the act by the kings' page, she returns it, but is allowed to keep some of it because of her destitution. As a gift to the baby, Amahl offers his only possession, his crutch. Suddenly he is miraculously cured of his lameness and restored to full mobility. He decides to join the kings on their pilgrimage to the manger.
The music of this 50-minute opera is heart-rending and intensely moving. Menotti is a master of transforming the natural inflections of ordinary conversation into a musical line, for example the boy's breathless report of the gigantic star to his mother. Menotti also captures the exotic Middle Eastern setting, beginning with the folk-like melody of the shepherd's pipe (played by the oboe), and including the sinuous dance music of the shepherds. Orchestral effects simulate the action on stage through the following examples: staccato strings as Amahl moves across the floor on his crutch, regal chords sounding as the three kings arrive at the door of the shack, and the sweet harmonies in the tender duets between Amahl and his mother as they plan a begging strategy. There is also a beautiful quartet in which the three kings describe the future character of the Christ child, with Amahl's mother answering with a comparison to her own son's character.