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CD Review

Gian Carlo Menotti

Amahl and the Night Visitors

  • Chet Allen, treble (Amahl)
  • Rosemary Kuhlmann, mezzo-soprano (Mother)
  • Andrew McKinley, tenor (King Kaspar)
  • David Aiken, baritone (King Melchior)
  • Leon Lishner, bass (King Balthazar)
Orchestra and Chorus/Thomas Schippers
RCA 6485-2-RG Monaural
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"There's basically Thomas Schippers 1951 effort with the original cast on RCA, and a hard to find digital issue on Jay Records. Schippers has to this point been considered the best, and indeed the performance has everything. There's great conducting, fine singing, a sense of occasion, and very good sound for 1951" So I wrote when reviewing Naxos' version on American Opera Classics 8.669019 in December, 2014. Here is that classic 1952 album, with what basically amounts to the best players and singers RCA Victor had on offer. Treble Chet Allen leads a cast that in many ways has not been bettered after 60 years.

As I wrote earlier, an opera about Christmas in English is a treat for kids and adults alike. I've seen it live, and it's a joy. A young, disabled boy lives in poverty with his despairing mother. When the Three Magi come singing (and bumbling) by, the boy's tiny town erupts in excitement over both their company and their wealth. Desperate to provide for her son, the mother steals their priceless items. Caught in the act, the Kings are unsurprisingly angry, but the boy Amahl staunchly defends her. She returns the items, Amahl is healed as if by magic, and he travels with the Magi to follow the star to the infant child they seek. Along the way, there is humor, sorrow, and happiness. It's a compact work that feels just right. At just over 45 minutes, it's a perfect show to take a family to even today, and captures the season well.

The soloists are not well known today, but they sound pretty fantastic even now. They are easily more interesting than the 2008 Naxos cast. The Three Kings are the most notable asset over the latter men, who are utterly faceless compared to these three on RCA. Certainly, having recorded the television broadcast and having recorded this album in the presence of the composer, they have the advantage of having lived in these roles. They are funny as one would hope. That said, treble Ike Hawkersmith on Naxos may have the edge vocally, even if he lacks Allen's emotional engagement and vulnerability.

The combined choruses on Naxos of Chicago and Nashville have a clear edge over the unnamed RCA choir; these are two of the country's best. Still, the smaller and less polished forces here give a great performance, and sound much more like country villagers. Their diction really good, except in the few parts where the work gets loud. There the monophonic sound becomes congested. Otherwise, the sound is still great 60 years later, and Thomas Schippers leads a tangy and wide-eyed performance that continues to be part of America's Christmas traditions. If you choose the Naxos, I won't complain, but you can't claim to love the work without this.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman

Trumpet