By Ted AYALA
Regional or community orchestras and opera companies tend to be given a bit more slack when it comes to musical standards and discipline. While audiences expect nothing less than perfection from ensembles like the Berlin Philharmonic or the La Scala Opera, a community orchestra may be forgiven the occasional lapse in ensemble or faulty intonation. But no such apologies need to be made for the Intimate Opera of Pasadena. Last Saturday evening’s performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” was world-class; one regret is that this production won’t be recorded.
Malcolm McDowell, star of the films “Clockwork Orange” and “If…,” got the evening started by welcoming the audience to Intimate Opera’s new home at the Pasadena Playhouse. The curtains soon parted open to reveal a simple backdrop displaying a long window that seemingly looked out into the snow covered fields of the house outside and the memory of the poem’s reader. McDowell effortlessly brought Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” to life. Gently melancholic and shot through with good humor, McDowell’s reading was unforgettable.
The evening led straight from Thomas to Menotti with a spectacular performance of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” that was produced by Stephanie Vlahos and conducted by Jeffrey Bernstein. Menotti’s gem-like score gleamed with sparkling charm and with thanks to an orchestra and cast of singers that were simply perfect.
Suzanna Guzman co-starred as the Mother: a role she performed under the direction of Menotti himself. Her warm, glowing tones were possibly the very best I’ve ever heard in this role. Caleb Glickman as Amahl was a delight. The roles of the Three Kings, however, nearly stole the show.
Their lustrous voices and their innate comic timing were marvelous. Cedric Berry as Balthazar was impressive, with a sonorous, powerful baritone; Robin Buck’s Melchior was rich; and Greg Fedderly as Kaspar was outstanding, brimming with effortless humor and charm.
The orchestra, too, was everything one could have hoped to hear. Maestro Jeffrey Bernstein gave his singers plenty of room to breathe and allowed the score to bubble merrily. Pasadena Master Chorale was the choristers in this production and was terrific.
Stephanie Vlahos’ glittering stage design was the icing on the proverbial cake. Simple, but telling, it is refreshing to see the work of a producer who doesn’t smother the composer’s voice, but rather, complements it. If only more opera producers would heed her vision.
Due to her appreciation of Menotti’s theatrical flair, Vlahos was able to get the entire cast to radiate the humor and joy this opera requires. The entire ensemble performed with total commitment to the score and would have done Menotti proud. It was obvious that each of them enjoyed performing this work. Their enthusiasm was infectious and earned a much-deserved standing ovation at the close of the evening.
Intimate Opera of Pasadena is planning a production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” next year. If it is anywhere near as good as this production of “Amahl,” it should be another unforgettable evening.