Seasonal Offering Preceded by a Powerful Performance of ‘The Ballad of the Brown King’
By George B. Parous
Amahl and the Night Visitors, the “children’s” opera in one act by Gian Carlo Menotti, with both music and libretto by the composer, got its holiday season revival by Resonance Works at the New Hazlett Theater last night. Originally commissioned by NBC and first performed live from New York City’s “NBC Opera Theatre” on Christmas Eve 1951, it was the first production in the network’s “Hallmark Hall of Fame” series. NBC broadcast the little opera on or near Christmas, annually from 1951 through 1966 – live until 1963 – but the tradition didn’t have the enduring appeal of some other programs and movies from the pre-streaming days long gone. In 1978, a new production starring Teresa Stratas as Amahl’s mother was aired, again by NBC, but today the work is most often heard when staged live by smaller ensembles such as Resonance Works.
Last night a good-sized audience gathered at the New Hazlett Theater for the ambitious company’s first presentation of “Amahl” since 2019 became the temporary final curtain for live entertainments. The production looked much the same as in past years, although with mostly new faces, as well as some familiar ones, giving performances that were remembered with a smile. Any orchestral score conducted by Maria Sensi Sellner is a thing of joy, and last night was no exception, since the ensemble of about twenty instrumentalists (and nearly as many “Festival Chorus” members) responded beautifully to her direction. The orchestra is the core talent, of course, but the confidence of a conductor who knows how to rehearse and inspire a group to give of its best is a very specific skill endowed on few, and not always so generously as in last night’s pillar of reliability.
The Mother (Barbara LeMay) and Amahl (Victory Brinker)
But, as always, Amahl was the star of the show, this year played by Victory Brinker, a very talented young performer who lacks nothing in the way of charm, comedic timing mixed with a dash of pathos, and a sweet voice that carries. Saturday night, December 17, will be the second and only chance to hear her, as Evangeline Sereno will sing and act the role at the Sunday matinee. Barbara LeMay, as Amahl’s mother, was one of the familiar voices and faces, since this marks her fourth “Amahl” with Resonance Works. She gave a good reading of the difficult and slightly thankless part.
Amahl (Victory Brinker) and Kaspar (Robert Frankenberry)
The comical kings were a talented group of royalty. Jonathan Stuckey (Balthazar) has one of the deepest, richest and most resonant bass voices one could hope to hear. He projects sincerity into his acting as well, making for an excellent combination of talents. Bass-baritone Jesús Vicente Murillo (Melchior), set to make his debut with the Metropolitan Opera this season, is a spirited performer who clearly gives his all, both vocally and histrionically, all wrapped up in a pleasing stage presence that exudes charm. Robert Frankenberry (Kaspar), the well-known local tenor/baritone/bass/pianist/educator/actor/conductor/music director/you-name-it, delivered his usual sterling performance, and baritone Solomon Onyukwu did the small bit of the Page well. The ensemble of locals made a few well sung and choreographed appearances. The “homeless” setting of the opera is a bit worn, and a true Christmas miracle would be sufficient funds flowing into Resonance Works’ coffers to make a more conventionally costumed, subject appropriate staging possible. Maybe as the ensemble enters its second decade people will share that hope enough to make it come true. You can learn all about this weekend’s production, purchase tickets and/or make donations by visiting Resonance Works
(L to R) Barbara LeMay, Victory Brinker, Jonathan Stuckey, Jesús Vicente Murillo, Robert Frankenberry, Solomon Onyukwu
But even if you’ve experienced Amahl and the Night Visitors before, this year it’s served up as a second course, so to speak, after a truly powerful performance of Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes’1954 cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King, which itself follows Nancy Galbraith and Sara Stock Mayo’s brief Rededication, a seasonally appropriate paean of hope and harmony. Maria Sensi Sellner and the orchestra opened the evening with a fine performance of the piece, then followed with the Bonds’ composition, a thing of great power and inspiration, excellently delivered by all concerned. The nine movements of the cantata also center on the Three Wise Men, particularly Balthazar, “the brown king.” From the opening “Of the Three Wise Men,” to “Mary Had Little Baby,” to the concluding “Alleluia” chorus, the music fascinates.
The composition has been one described as including “a combination of European, Jazz and Calypso music.” Others have noted that Bonds was inspired by the musical influences of four-part hymn and gospel music. There are also “quasi-recitative sections” and blues influenced parts of the cantata. It all adds up to thirty or so minutes of glorious music that seem to pass in fifteen or less. Again, the orchestra and chorus were in top form, with some truly astonishing solo passages sung by soprano Anqwenique Kinsel and baritone Solomon Onyukwu. Mr. Onyukwu sang with a rich, warm voice heard to much better advantage than when later he sang the small role of the Page in “Amahl.” Never having heard Ms. Kinsel before, her voice came as a revelation. She has a soprano voice of almost indescribable beauty, full and warm and perfectly at her command in all registers, with silvery top tones of exquisitely round loveliness; she projects a solid column of sound which she can diminish into delicate pianissimo or swell to power with a perfect sense of legato.
It is a program well worth seeing that Resonance Work is putting on this weekend. As mentioned, there is a performance at the New Hazlett Theater this evening, Saturday, December 17 at 7:30, and one last chance tomorrow afternoon, when the matinee performance begins at 3. Ticket sales and donations make up the ensemble’s budget, so by all means click the link above for one, the other, or best of all – both!
The Production Team –
Conductor & Producer, Maria Sensi Sellner; Stage Director, Kelly Trumbull; Production Manager & Technical Director, Brennan Sellner; Stage Manager, Tina Shackleford; Assistant Stage Manager, Danielle Bergman; Lighting Designer, Eve Bandi; Costume Designer, Elizabeth Rishel; Assistan Conductor, Jeffrey Klefstad; Rehearsal Accompanist, Nathália Kato
Photography – Alisa Innocenti