Ten minutes into "Amahl and the Night Visitors," a door behind the audience flings open, a light shines and graceful dancers, minimally dressed in beige, sway in camel-like motions. They lead a caravan of the Three Kings, each of whom wears a frame that supports a giant head made of papier mache, giving the impression that each king is about eight feet tall.
It's a creative approach, and one that marks Petite Opera's production of Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors," which NBC commissioned 60 years ago for the then-new medium of television. It first aired during the 1951 Christmas season.
The creativity continues with dancers from Des Plaines' , who portray an antelope and cougar as well as the camels. That rings of influences from the stage version of "The Lion King," just as the idea of the tall papier mache figures may be drawn from figures in southern European traditional processions. In fact, set designer Miguel Lopez-Lemus, who was born in Mexico City, explains in website notes that papier mache is often used in Mexico, in a form known as cartoneria.
All of these influences create visual interest and delight, which complements the strong voices in the cast.
The production, held in Park Ridge at St. Mary's Episcopal Church's Beyer Auditorium, opens with Denise Knowlton's powerful voice filling the hall as she, playing the Mother, calls her son Amahl inside for bedtime. Shea Walters, a girl playing a boy's role, projected charm and liveliness as the sometimes-mischievous but ultimately good-hearted Amahl, though her voice is still developing.
As for the kings who arrive at Amahl's door on their journey following the star, Noah Gartner as Melchior and Aaron Bolden as Balthazar sang richly, each projecting a commanding presence. Edward Ozaki played the more whimsical, somewhat deaf Kaspar--and his tenor had lovely rounded quality.
Six neighboring shepherds arrive to fuss over the kings who have asked to stay at Amahl's house, with some lovely voices blending into the hubbub. More Galina Studio dancers put on a lively half ballet-half folk dance, sprinkled with a few tarantella twirls.
Knowlton plaintively portrays the mother's desperation as she weighs whether to steal a tiny bit of gold to keep her child from starving, going back and forth between the guilt and the gilt.
The resolution is satisfying, although one today, in a post-Jerry Sandusky age, can hardly imagine a mother sending her child off to travel with three visiting kings--even if it is to search for the Christ child.
Knowlton shared the role with Regina Webster, with each playing certain dates in the run. Likewise, Walters alternated with Henry Lunn.
Though "Amahl" closed its short run yesterday, Petite Opera next performs Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" April 20 through May 5. Tickets are $25 adults, $22 seniors, $15 students and free for under age 5. Call (847) 553-4442 for details.
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