It has to be one of the strangest occurrences of the age that a piece receiving so many performances—some estimate about 500 a year–continues to suffer from a costly and unconscionable dearth of recordings. Here’s the sum total: The original soundtrack from the 1951 television broadcast and its corresponding DVD; a 1987 Covent Garden production (first on MCA and now Jay records); and this brand spanking new release from Nashville. I last saw the work done professionally at Atlanta’s Spivey Hall (Clayton State College) about 10 years ago with William Fred Scott and local professionals that I would loved for them to have released, but alas, it was not to be. This would seem a no-brainer—the work is so beloved and familiar, yet no one touches it—kudos to Naxos for finally getting around to it and presenting it here as part of its American Classics series.
One thing that might deter people from recording it is the absolutely pristine quality of the first performance. I will say right here that this recording under consideration doesn’t touch it, and the MCA is even further down the line. When I first heard that issue I was gravely disappointed; though it was the first professional staging of the piece (and can you believe that too!) and also enjoyed the imprimatur of Menotti himself who directed it, the whole is full of weaknesses, starting with a smallish sounding orchestra, odd recording, and uneven choral work. Lorna Haywood was fine (though the least favorite of the three), while James Rainbird turned in a mature, well-wrought portrait of Amahl. I think Jay has withdrawn it.
The 1951 is superb in every way (except the caveat of the mono sound, but even that is not an impediment to me), with Chet Allen giving a wonder reading of Amahl, carefully characterized with great timing. Rosemary Kuhlmann is the definitive Mother, and every subsequent performance will have to measure against her. The humor in the Three Kings is hard to beat, while the young Thomas Schippers directs the sort of reading you would expect from a genius of his ilk. Five million people watched the performance on that Christmas Eve of 1951, and it has left an indelible mark on the musical psyche of America.
But again, bravo to Naxos for at least throwing its hat into the ring. The Mother of Kirsten Gunlogson comes off very well, the closest I have heard to Kuhlmann, and indeed she shows signs of being very familiar with the originator’s work. Every other aspect of this reading also easily tops the Covent Garden production, including the conducting, which is richly drawn and only slightly too lyrical in some of the monologue sections. The problem is Ike Hawkersmith’s Amahl. While I am hesitant to criticize this young man (for his performance is about as keenly felt as I imagine he could have done it) the voice remains a bit of a problem—there is too much thinness to the tone and a slight “kiddy” quality that doesn’t stand up to the other recordings, especially Chet Allen’s original. But this is not anything he can help—at this stage of life, his voice is what it is. But opera is not something that parrots realistic stages of a child’s life—we demand singing and artistic temperament from everyone, and expect the roles to be sung as well as possible. And dramatically I expected more from this. Example: At the critical moment when Amahl offers his crutch to the Kings to take to the child, and the strings hold that one note, so brilliantly conceived by Menotti, Amahl says “I walk, mother.” But here the Amahl comes in with his line far too quickly, and the emotional import of the moment is lost; we need a few seconds to ponder what has happened, to hold our breath (and tears). The Schippers has Allen doing it perfectly.
But I don’t want to complain too much—this will hopefully serve as a catalyst for other recordings. The 1951 performances are mandatory—you have to have them. But as fine as this one is—and there are many wondrous moments, as it is Amahl—we will have to wait for the definitive digital Amahl and the Night Visitors.
As a bonus we are given a performance of the delightful and homey My Christmas, a work for chorus accompanied by flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, harp, and bass. It makes a fine discmate to the opera, and an enjoyable wind-down, just one more reason to invest in the low Naxos price and acquire this disc.
— Steven Ritter