Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Back in the mid-60’s, I remember this made-for-TV opera being run every year at Christmas, usually on a Sunday afternoon, but despite my love of all things Christmas, I never got around to watching it. Since then, I’ve learned that the opera was first aired live in 1951 and re-staged, in live performance and in reruns, through the 60's. Recently a kinescope of the 1955 live telecast was issued on DVD. The plot is simple and seemingly classic, though as far as I know, it originated with the opera's writer, Gian Carlo Menotti. On the night of the Nativity, a poor lame boy named Amahl gets in trouble with his mother; he's an idle dreamer who makes up wild stories all the time, so his mother doesn't believe him when he says that wonderful things are happening in the night skies. But of course, there really is a magical star shining in the sky, and later that night, the Three Kings stop by looking for shelter on their way to visit the Christ child. Nearby shepherds provide food and entertainment, but the mother resents the fact that the Kings are taking gold as a gift for some newborn infant, while her poor crippled son has nothing. After she's caught trying to steal some gold, Melchior offers it to her outright, but when she learns more about what Christ has come for, she instead wishes she had a gift to send. When Amahl offers to send his crutch, since the child may need it someday, he is miraculously cured and heads off with the Kings to see the newborn child. I am not an opera fan, and though this work was popular in its day, I would have had trouble following the action if it weren't for the subtitles available on the DVD. Some of the songs are close to show tunes, especially a cute bit in which Amahl keeps trying to tell his disbelieving mom that three kings are at the front door, but the operatic tones keep getting in the way of clear comprehension. I have a similarly hard time judging performance here, since the acting is not, and is not meant to be, naturalistic, but the 12-year-old boy playing Amahl, Bill McIver, is excellent, and Rosemary Kuhlmann is fine as the mother. There have been a few picture book adaptations of this over the years, but I think the material is ripe for adaptation as a non-musical film or play. [DVD]

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