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Less is more. A lot more!

United Presbyterian Church, Miami Shores
12/22/2012 -  & January 6, 2013
Gian Carlo Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors
Alexander Segarra, Sarah Ser (Amahl), Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste, Marinel Cruz (his Mother), Justin John Moniz, Kunya Rowley, Miguel Llerena (Kaspar), Graham Fandrei (Melchior), Kevin Short, Gibson Dorcé (Balthazar), Ardean Landhuis (Page) Orchestra Miami and Chorus, Elaine Rinaldi (chorus master and conductor), Michael Yawney (director), Angelina Esposito (costume design), Octavio Campos (choreography)

(Courtesy of Orchestra Miami)

Here is an interesting twist. This holiday opera was offered before Christmas at a church in South Florida. How insightful that Orchestra Miami has decided to offer two additional performances: one in English with Spanish supertitles and another, in Spanish with English titles on January 6th, El Día de los Reyes (Day of the Kings), a celebration that is not especially familiar to non-hispanics.

The opening night performance was given in the beautiful sanctuary. Unfortunately the open space was not always advantageous to the singers' diction but it is hardly possible, given acting of such caliber, that anyone in the audience had difficulty following the simple story.

Orchestra Miami, led by Elaine Rinaldi, demonstrated the command and sensitivity that this score demands. Always in danger of becoming too cute, or on the other hand, too serious, this is not a piece that is easy to pull off. Menotti wrote his own Bible story with lessons of kindness, love, generosity, honesty and even familial difficulties. There is also real humor, much of which comes from Menotti's keen insight into children's behavior and adults' reaction to it.

The peaceful simplicity of the church proved to be the perfect stage for this tender work; and tender here, does not imply slight. Though Amahl and the Night Visitors runs for only forty-five minutes, there is more melody offered than in many works three times or greater its length. And not just beautiful, but of great variety, including a madrigal chorus of shepherds and a charming ballet that serves as an intermezzo. So a successful Amahl requires lots of resources, not just fine singing, which fortunately was in abundance.

Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste was exceptional as the mother. The role has several dimensions. Not only is she a caring mom, she is also irritated with her son's fabrications (which turn out to be quite truthful), not to mention the absolute terror she anticipates with raising her child in complete poverty. Jean-Baptiste has a gloriously rich tone, and only when her music reaches into the very high stratosphere is her diction not intelligible as is often the case for sopranos. This is another example of a committed singing actress who has fully explored the complexities of her character. The Kings are most effective when the performers are sensible enough to keep their characters distinct. Costumes alone aren't enough; musically and dramatically Kevin Short (Bathalzar), Justin John Moniz (Kaspar) and Graham Fandrei (Melchior) offer beautiful voices and engagingly amusing temperaments with enough, not too much, imaginative physical acting to keep the audience spellbound. Their long entrance from their opening notes at the back of the auditorium to their ascension into the family's home was one of the evening's highlights. The quartet, “Have You Seen a Child,” with Jean-Baptiste is, as anticipated, the evening's musical peak. Not an easy time for the sensitive to hold back tears.

And then there is the Amahl of Alexander Segarra. It will be Amahl who is praised or faulted for the performance's success. Segarra is a natural star in-the-making. This isn't a smarty-pants kid showing off multitalents but a true performer. He always remains the force that keeps the ensemble tight. Yeah, he is miked and there are, as usual, a few technical complications, but Amahl's sweet and very good nature is never compromised; he is particularly moving in his aria “I Was a Shepherd.”

The Shepherds were a wonderful combination, and the dancers Monica Alvarez and Brashad Lewis brilliantly executed the tight and imaginative choreography of Octavio Campos, providing the Kings' diversion before their rest.

The other performances had some cast changes for the kings which were especially memorable with the imaginatively humorous Kaspar of Kunya Rowley and Miguel Llerena, Gibson Dorcé's stolid Balthazar and Graham Fandrei again offered his Melchior, the hilariously pompous leader of the kings, in both English and Spanish. Marinel Cruz's impressively pure tone provided a most sensitive interpretation as the Mother. Though her ability to move like a boy was not always believable, the high soprano of Sarah Ser was solid. Hopefully someday Orchestra Miami might use Ser as the narrator for Manuel de Falla's El Retablo de Maese Pedro. To hear Amahl and the Night Visitors (Amahl y los Reyes Magos) sung in Spanish for the first time is quite a revelation. The language, so overflowing with beautiful vowel sounds, gives the opera an especially luscious quality.

Beautifully costumed and directed with precision, this is about as good as it gets with Amahl and the Night Visitors. Menotti's charming tale might live forever and perhaps this presentation will become a Three Kings Day ritual in South Florida. We should be so lucky.

Jeff Haller



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