Amahl and the Night Visitors

23509011_1502775556458378_1922291248159416369_o“What brings you joy?” asks Resonance Works | Pittsburgh board of directors president Rob Frankenberry.

There is certainly joy in listening to live classical music. There is joy in the artistry of skilled musicians. There is joy in the unadorned sound of classical instruments. There is joy in well-honed voices filling a space with the arias and choruses of an opera. The Resonance Works’ production of Amahl and the Night Visitors provides many opportunities for joy, along with unfortunate moments of disappointment and sadness.

The evening was divided into two acts. The first act featured a trio of orchestral works, scored for a small chamber group that consisted of (if I counted correctly) 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, and 1 bass as the core group.

The core ensemble was joined by oboists Stephanie Tobin and David Fitzpatrick for Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon by Handel. I found the oboe duets delightful, played with both precision and aplomb. Arrival is a fun piece, though I prefer a slightly faster tempo, to emphasize the celebratory and de-emphasize the ceremonial aspect of the piece.

Next was Dances Sacrée et Profane by Debussy, featuring the talented harpist, Marissa Knaub Avon. This piece is dreamy, almost meditative – until it’s not. Then the harp explodes with rhythm and aggression, only to be brought back into line by a gentle, repeating motif. The harp can’t be completely tamed though, and the piece ends with a final, good-natured thunk.

Rounding out the first half of the evening was Vivaldi’s Bassoon concerto in E minor, featuring Andrew Genemans on bassoon, with Uliana Kozhevnikova on harpsichord. I’m far from an expert, but Mr. Genemans is a rock star on that bassoon! He was facile, quick, and a master at both the high and low registers of the instrument. It was just fun to watch and listen to him play.

Keeping everyone on track throughout both acts was conductor and artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner. Maestra Sellner has a light, masterful touch, creating a very balanced sound throughout the evening.

But that’s where most of the good news ends. Disappointingly, the second half of the evening, the performance of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, was not quite as successful as the first.

The singing was universally good. Ivy Walz (Mother), Andrew Maughan (King Kaspar), Andrew Adelsberger (King Melchior), and Jonathan Stuckey (King Balthazar) all gave strong vocal performances, ably supported by the Resonance Chamber Orchestra. The Slippery Rock University Chamber Singers sounded great as the chorus of shepherds; they had a nice blend and their diction was spot on. Eighth grader Liam McCarthy’s thin soprano (Amahl) didn’t fare quite as well as the rest of the cast in the unforgiving Charity Randall Theater, though he acquitted himself nicely, making it through a big role with some very tricky vocal moments.

Despite some really fine vocal performances, the production as a whole didn’t work.
It came down to the fact that this production is neither fish nor fowl: it is neither a concert version of the show, nor is it a fully-realized production – which is a real shame, because I think stage director Craig Joseph had a solid germ of a concept.

He tried to place the show within the context of a circus, which had the potential to be a wild, mysterious, magical take on the story. Unfortunately, the concept was never fully realized, and the result was a mish-mash of elements that added up to confusion, instead of a unified vision. There wasn’t enough set to create a sense of place, time, mood, anything. The set pieces that were onstage were off-concept. The costuming was spotty at best, and the chorus looked like they pulled items from their own closets or raided a thrift store. Lighting design was minimal and clunky. You can do minimal and still have high quality production values; this show didn’t meet that mark.

Resonance Works habitually has the orchestra on stage, in full view, often intertwined with the staging space of the show. I really like this; it makes the connection between singer and musician even stronger, and fits the model for the company. However, in the case of Amahl, this meant there wasn’t enough room on stage for the full ensemble, which was just awkward. This lack of space also didn’t help with staging, which tended to be too static anyway. And, while I appreciate the enthusiasm and pluck of the chorus, I cannot approve the decision to forgo the use of professional dancers to perform the dance done for the Kings by the Shepherds. What resulted was far too amateurish for this fine company, and the production would have been better served by cutting the dance interlude all together.

Amahl and the Night Visitors runs this weekend only, through Sunday, December 17, 2017. You can find out more about Resonance Works and purchase tickets at www.resonanceworks.org.