A scaled-down production gets to the heart of art
Burke High School.
To get there you go through some of Charleston’s poorer streets.
It was at Burke, far from the glitz and bombast of Spoleto proper, that the Piccolo Spoleto presentation of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors took place.
Burke High is at the end of ironically named President Street and though it is in the less respectable area of town it is nevertheless a well-designed, well-maintained, and very updated facility, handsomely paid for by a community whose conscience is undoubtedly troubled by its less-than-perfect past.
Charleston, that city balanced between past and present, between Europe and America, between history and present-day politics, was the chosen city for Ahmal’s composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Here he brought his Spoleto festival in the mid 1970s to mirror the one he’d already started and made famous in his home country and here he would eventually run into conceptual conflicts of art and money and how they dance on the edge of a blade in our contemporary world.
Now Menotti, who some years ago became alienated from Spoleto Festival USA, has passed away, and there is talk about reunification. Perhaps Spoleto may again become truly of two worlds, as Menotti first envisioned.
But with more certainty, what will remain of Menotti, at least for some time to come, is his exceptional music.
Ahmal and the Night Visitors is possibly Menotti’s best-known work although it did not win any Pulitzers as his other operas did. That may be because it seems to be a rule of thumb in the so-called classical world that when something is too popular it can’t be good. Ahmal was commissioned as the first opera for television in 1951 and as such it is painfully brief and compact, truly designed for a medium where the attention spans are short and the itch to change channels constant.
It is the story of the crippled boy, Amahl, whose encounter with the three biblical kings, Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, results in his miraculous cure. Several story elements and some incredibly memorable music raise Ahmal from a near collision with kitsch. There is the “All That Gold” aria that Ahmal’s mother sings when the kings are asleep and she considers stealing. The implication here is that the poor steal only because they need to and the moral weakness of the character is completely justifiable. There are the songs of the shepherds; the endless thank yous of the kings, which provide a welcome if restrained stroke of comedy; the sweet innocence of Ahmal, whose purity is almost inconceivable in the Nickelodeon generation.
The simplicity and utter accessibility of this childlike story are simultaneously the keys to its success and its potential Achilles heel. Those whose aesthetics demand a certain amount of alienation and contemporary existential angst are never likely to accept Ahmal as anything other than an appeal to mediocre conservatism. Ahmal as a composition is not very challenging or groundbreaking. There are no tone clusters or aleatory areas, no score designed to look like abstract artwork, no eerie utterances from the orchestra to hail the modernist loss of self, no special effects or screaming amplifications. There are instead soothing colors, singable vocal lines that don’t require bravura or intellectual performers, and a story that is not only innocent but is based on traditional Christian subject matter and morality.
Ahmal comes from another time and another place artistically, a place inhabited by those who, like Menotti, mourned the passing of a world where such music made sense and such art was revered. Some reviewers note that Menotti’s abilities as a composer may have declined after the 1950s, after he’d written The Consul and the Saint of Bleecker Street, but what is more accurate is that the world around Menotti changed. And his interests changed. He became more of an impresario. It is impossible to know the motives behind his evolution from composer to impresario but taking his musical style as a point of reference one can speculate that he was driven by the need to keep the kind of music and art he loved from disappearing into the vortex of modern pop culture.
Nigel Redden, Spoleto’s renowned general director, has quoted Menotti as saying that he didn’t want the Spoleto festivals to be after-dinner mints for the wealthy. At the same time Menotti must have been painfully aware that entertainment value was quickly becoming a necessary element if European-based conceptual music was to compete and survive in a stereophonic, Technicolor world.
The presentation of Ahmal and the Night Visitors at Burke High School, far from the overblown heights of Spoleto proper, brought several points home.
Presented without glamour and greatly lacking in theatrics and staging but possessed of great conviction, this little Piccolo Spoleto production challenged the audience to look closely at what really defines art. This was not an after-dinner mint for the wealthy but a sincere heartfelt performance respectful of the material and in tune with its simplicity. Harrison Michael Carr bravely attempted to fulfill the role of Ahmal and was charming even in his notable shortcomings. Jennifer Luiken was perfect as Ahmal’s mother and she more than made up vocally for Carr’s underachievement. The three kings, James Broussard, Jacob Will, and Tyrone B. Wallace Jr. were outstanding, truly regal and comic just as Menotti intended. And the Charleston County School for the Arts High School Chorus was clearly imbued with the traditional passion for great choral singing. Conductor Scott Terrell managed the ensemble, which included the Charleston Symphony, with accuracy and verve keeping the orchestra from overwhelming young Carr without losing the charm of Menotti’s deceptively detailed score.
But one of the most charming moments in this anti-spectacular production was the dance by Lorenzo Perez and Celeste Pompeii. These two children danced with the innocent love that somehow — with all our sophistication, all our philosophizing, all our modernist hipness — we may have utterly lost. Ahmal and the Night Visitors, in this Burke High School production, brought home the idea that true art is not at its core some contrived, arcane, over-conceptualized, money-hungry, culture-shaping monster. It is an expression of honest love for whatever medium happens to be employed, regardless of the message, regardless of the context. It is a love for sharing and communicating — not for high rhetoric and encyclopedic explanations.
Menotti, regardless of how we interpret him, must have deeply understood that. Along with his music, his effort to keep the flame of such art alive will surely be his legacy.
Ahmal and the Night Visitors • Piccolo Spoleto • Free outreach concerts • May 31 at 7 p.m., Fort Dorchester High School; June 1 at 7 p.m., Stratford High School • 724-7305