I am not a particular fan of opera, having developed an irrational aversion as a child to the stereotypical image of busty ladies in period dress warbling at a pitch high enough to shatter windows. Nevertheless, when told that a performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors would last just 45 minutes I was persuaded to set aside my prejudices. And I am exceptionally glad that I did, for Amahl was a truly magical performance.
Staged in the small but beautiful Lincoln College Chapel, Menotti’s tale of a poor, crippled boy who is visited by the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem was wonderfully intimate and atmospheric. The performance started in pitch black, with only the tiny lights of the ensemble (how they still managed to read their music is beyond me), and the electric tealights that we were given beforehand, penetrating the darkness. Natural candelight would have been a bonus, but health, safety and shaking hands meant that it was probably a very good idea to go with the electric version.
When the lights came on, the performers used the full space of the chapel aisle, meaning that the audience in the pews were able to discern every facial expression, and the singers could go without microphones. The costumes and make up, designed by Katie Lambert, were simple and clever – all performers dressed in black, but had face paint to denote their characters. The young, imaginative Amahl had stars around his eyes, his tired Mother, dark face paint and a single tear running down her cheek. The use of different-coloured fairy lights for the crowns of the three Kings was, dare I say it, inspired.
This simplicity, in both costume and staging, meant that the beauty of the music, ably conducted by James D’Costa, and the performers’ considerable talents could shine through. Betty Mahkarinsky brought the young crippled boy, Amahl, to life with an endearing mix of inquisitiveness and innocence. Leonor Jennings played the perfect counterpoint as the Mother, worried for her child and exasperated with what she believes to be his over-active imagination. Jennings and Mahkarinsky’s voices blended perfectly, their harmonies soaring into the rafters of the Chapel. The rich three-part harmony of the three Kings, played by Joe Mason, Alexei Kalveks and Patrick Edmond, was also pitch-perfect, and their light-hearted interplay well-timed. The chorus of dancing shepherds was similarly lively and humorous.
Amahl and the Night Visitors left me feeling extremely Christmassy, and at the conclusion I even welled up a little bit. Who knows, I might even be persuaded to watch a full length opera next time.