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Opera review: 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' at the Pasadena Playhouse [Updated]

December 17, 2010 |  2:00 pm

Next year marks the centennial of the Italian-born American composer Gian Carlo Menotti, but it can be argued that the celebration occurs about 50 years too late. 

In the 1950s, Menotti was the toast of opera; his outpourings of cannily staged, post-Puccini verismo gathered two Pulitzer Prizes, ran on Broadway and television, and generated the hope that a viable repertoire of American operas was being established at last.  But Menotti’s time passed swiftly. Many of his operas were seen as “cloying” or “manipulative” –- and what's remembered in recent years are the heavily promoted premieres of new Menotti opuses that promptly fell off the boards.  

Nowadays, despite sporadic revivals, hardly any of them can be said to have truly entered the repertoire –- except one.  That would be Menotti’s enduring hit, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” written for television in 1951 and since performed more than 2,500 times around the holiday season.  It’s short –- only about 48 minutes -– and it’s concisely drawn, written so that amateur groups can manage it, largely free from the composer’s gluts of sentiment, with touches of cuteness and whimsy that go down easily.

As such, “Amahl” made a near-ideal relaunching pad Thursday night for Intimate Opera of Pasadena (formerly known just as Intimate Opera), an outfit that has parked itself as the resident opera company in the Pasadena Playhouse as of this fall. The company aspires to be a regional force, and it is getting good help from the pros.  

Singer-turned-stage-director Stephanie Vlahos has become Intimate Opera’s artistic director. As director of this straightforward production, she takes Menotti’s word and her company’s name seriously.  The home of Amahl and his mother was sparely furnished with the appropriate look of dire poverty, making the entrance of the lavishly costumed Three Kings all the more startling.

 Vlahos rounded up some fellow travelers from L.A. Opera’s ranks for the evening cast (the matinees feature a young second cast), starting with mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán’s multifaceted portrayal of Amahl’s mom (as the composer himself once said about Guzmán, she does look and act like a young widow “who is starving”).  Tenor Greg Fedderly broadly played the hard-of-hearing King Kaspar for laughs; baritone Robin Buck (King Melchior) and bass-baritone Cedric Berry (King Balthazar) performed solidly; and the excellent boy soprano Caleb Glickman was a delightful Amahl. [Updated Dec. 18, 9:40 a.m.: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Leighton Saxbe played Amahl.]

McDowellThe small ensemble led by Jeffrey Bernstein was good enough –- especially the wind soloists -– and they made a dry yet full sound from the Playhouse pit with firm bass underpinning.  Everyone, including the Pasadena Master Chorale, exhibited crisp English diction, which, coupled with acoustics that flatter the spoken word, made everything comprehensible. There is a place for a company like this, in a room like this, as specialists in chamber operas (like those of Britten) as an alternative to the big boys downtown. 

“Amahl” was preceded by a reading of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by actor Malcolm McDowell in which one quickly lost track of the prose and bathed in the music of McDowell’s gracefully etched voice –- the same effect that Thomas’s own classic reading produces.

See photos from "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

-– Richard S. Ginell

Intimate Opera of Pasadena: "Amahl and the Night Visitors," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $35-$100. (626) 274-7342 or

Top photo: Robin Buck, left, Cedric Berry, Casa Grant and Stephanie Hullar in Intimate Opera of Pasadena's production of "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Bottom photo: Malcolm McDowell. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times. [Updated Dec. 18, 12:44 p.m.: An earlier version of this review identified the dancer in the top photo as Julie Avil.]