Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.
A grand procession of extravagantly dressed kings moved through the church.
King Balthazar took the lead, dressed in a crimson robe and headdress covered with gold. Then, came King Kaspar, clad head-to-toe in gold and jewels, and finally King Melchior, with a silky, turquoise and plum colored cape and plumed warrior’s helmet. They each carried luxurious gifts intended for the baby Jesus, including gold, frankincense and myrrh.
This scene took place during Central City Opera’s performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti last night (Dec. 13) at Boulder’s First United Methodist Church. The performance, directed by Iliana Lucero Barron and conducted by John Baril, offered a heart-warming interpretation of the seasonal classic, filled with the magic of the holiday spirit.
Aside from the luxurious Magi’s costumes, the production took a minimalistic approach, letting Menotti’s masterfully written music shine through as the central storytelling element. The performance will be repeated in Boulder tonight before heading to Denver for three shows, Dec. 16–18.
Originally commissioned by NBC as the first opera for television in 1951, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors has since become a beloved Christmas tradition. It tells the story of Amahl, a poor shepherd boy with a disability who lives with his widowed mother. One fateful night, the three Magi stop at Amahl’s house to rest on their way to Bethlehem, leading to a miraculous encounter that changes the young boy’s life.
Over the past 70 years, the opera is said to have been performed more than 2,500 times—in a wide variety of settings from professional opera houses to amateur church and school performances. Over the years, the brief one-hour opera in English, originally intended for children, has proved accessible and enjoyable for diverse audiences of all ages.
For this traveling production, Baron wanted to keep the props and sets to a minimum, to more easily adapt to different venues and offer creative flexibility to the performers. This approach resulted in a rather bare-bones aesthetic. Onstage, the main set piece for Amahl’s house consisted of a wooden door frame, surrounded by stacks of firewood and topped with a hanging sheet. Nearby, stood a few makeshift wooden chairs. This simple set left the stage looking almost too empty, though the church’s massive wooden overhanging cross and towering pipe organ filled out the space.
In the opening scene, Kason Nicholas, a boy soprano from the Colorado Children’s Chorale, established himself as a charming Amahl. Though he seemed a bit hesitant at first, his excitement and well-placed comedic timing soon proved endearing. With his light, clear voice, Nicholas required amplification in the large chapel, especially singing alongside the powerful mezzo-soprano Jennifer DeDominici as his mother. During their duets, their voices sounded well-balanced for the most part, though a few times Nicholas’ higher notes clipped slightly with the mic.
DeDominici delivered a convincing, nuanced interpretation of Amahl’s mother, realistically portraying her struggle as a single impoverished mother trying to care for a mischievous son with a disability. Her powerful, expressive voice projected through the chapel, commanding Amahl’s and the audience’s attention as her patience wore thin.
Yet, in brief moments, she showed glimpses of tender love for her son, such as in “Have You Seen a Child” when the three Magi’s descriptions of the holy Christ Child remind her of Amahl. In the final scene, DeDominici shined during one of the opera’s few deeper moments, as she grappled with her inner turmoil and feelings of desperation, love and greed before attempting theft for the sake of her son.
Accompanying these strong soloist performances, Baril’s orchestra, sprawled across the front section of the church pews, sounded wonderful. As the conductor, Baril took full advantage of Menotti’s adept score writing, exploring the different colors and personalities within the music for each character and perfectly timing the comedic musical interchanges with the singers’ lyrics and blocking. In addition, the shepherds chorus and the First United Methodist Church choir sang skillfully and with passion, aiding in the collaborative effort.
The three Magi, played by Paul Griggsby, Javier Abreu and Jonathan Hays, and their page, Jerome Síbulo, gave solid performances as well. In stark contrast to the humble lives of Amahl and his mother, the kings stood out as symbols of opulence, with their lavish costumes and props as the most eye-catching part of the show. They embodied the grace of nobility, singing clearly and powerfully with a beautiful blend as a cohesive unit. Throughout the opera, they played their crucial role well.
Despite bringing splendor into Amahl’s simple world, the Magi show him and his mother that the true meaning of the Christmas miracle lies not in wealth but in forgiveness, grace and love.