Intimate Opera of Pasadena set my holiday spirit in motion with a delightful coupling of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Gian Carlo Menotti’s beloved Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Pasadena is an exciting place this time of year, and the Dec. 16 gala opening in the company’s new venue at the Pasadena Playhouse was an event to remember.
Malcolm McDowell began the evening with a dramatic reading of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. He was engaging and comfortable, bringing the characters to life through his unique repertory of voices and nuanced gestures. I soon forgot the world from which I had just retreated. The comedic aspects of the text were punctuated with instinctively timed pauses, and at times his nostalgic tenderness touched me.
The set was simple; the feeling was definitely intimate. We sat in a cozy spot looking through a window into a snowy night. Scenic and lighting designers John Iacovelli and Jared Sayeg enveloped us in an effective impression of closeness and warmth.
What a treat it was to hear local mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán singing in this holiday classic in the role of Amahl’s mother. She was awesome; having sung the same role at the Kennedy Center under Menotti’s direction made for an insightful performance.
Guzmán performs with many of the world’s finest companies and orchestras and is no stranger to the stages of Los Angeles as a native of East Los Angeles and respected operatic star. She is an emotional singer; her voice was charged with the energy of her role, tapping into the depths of exasperation, hope, and love demanded of her.
Guzmán’s beautiful voice especially connected with her emphatic singing of “All That Gold.” That moment was a high point of the evening arising from an unexpected twist in the plot that exemplified the desperation that preceded the Christmas miracle about to unfold.
Caleb Glickman was a special Amahl. His voice carried well, especially in his singing of “Don’t Cry Mother Dear” and “Are You a Real King?” For such a young man, his credentials are impressive, and he brought his training to bear on this evening’s performance. He was an alert, confident Amahl. His voice was unruly at times, serving to heighten his mischievous character’s approachable and excitable personality.
Guzmán and Glickman clearly portrayed the family dynamic with the opening sequence of “Amahl! Amahl!,” “O Mother You Should Go Outside,” and “Stop Bothering Me.” Their chemistry was immediately evident.
Greg Fedderly, Cedric Berry, and Robin Buck portrayed the Magi with an imposing presence. The blend of their voices was sublime, and their individual voices were commanding. Costume designer Kate Bergh did a magnificent job with the kings’ costumes; they were larger than life, bold and opulent.
Kudos to Stephanie Vlahos for her intriguing stage direction. The dramatic entrance of the kings to the tune of “From Far Away We Come” had a spatial quality to it as they moved from offstage, to backstage, to stage center, where they entered one by one with great majesty.
Fedderly’s role as tenor King Kaspar was noteworthy not only for his capable singing but also for the loveable and amusing character he developed. Eccentric Kaspar was fun to hear and watch as he proudly showed Amahl his box of magical objects and licorice treats, and sang “This Is My Box.”
Bass-baritone Berry was an undeniably regal presence as King Balthazar. When he sang, he commanded our attention with his large authoritative voice. He was most convincing.
Buck’s velvety baritone distinguished his character, King Melchior, as a dominant figure in the theme, especially in the final departure of the Magi.
Benito Galindo played the role of the kings’ attendant. His antics were delightful, and his singing was simultaneously articulate and strong.
Dancers Julie Avila, Chris Fedun, and Stephanie Hullar added a unique dimension to the performance with their impromptu show humbly executed for the royal visitors. Connie Mathot’s choreography was grand, although it maintained a spontaneous character that evolved as the dancers progressed.
The appeal of Menotti’s instrumental music is itself worthy of mentioning. His sound is attractive and unfailingly lyrical. The range of orchestral colors was fascinating, and the winds were especially fine. Francis Park’s oboe was wonderfully alluring as Amahl’s shepherd’s pipe.
Conductor Jeffrey Bernstein, well-known for his choral and orchestral directorships, kept the rhythm of the night moving fluidly, and managed to balance the orchestration with the singers whether behind solo or ensemble. The dynamic control was appreciated.
Bravo to the entire Intimate Opera Company, and the new house is great!
Welcome the holidays with performances through Dec. 19, as the magic of Amahl and the Night Vsitors continues through this weekend. Contact Intimate Opera of Pasadena for further details.