Christmas at Utah Opera is for kids, and the younger generation was out in force Friday night, almost filling the theater for a double bill of classic children's operas. The children paid quiet attention, laughed loudly in the right places, and gave out plenty of cheers at the end. Nor did their elders seemed any less amused.
"Amahl and the Night Visitors," back on the Capitol Theatre stage after a five-year absence, is a Christmas classic whose appeal deepens with age. Indeed, it may be the work of the prolific Gian Carlo Menotti that endures best of all. Certainly it has irresistible warmth, humanity and drama, with many of those magical little moments that children treasure in their memories and avidly await the next time around; altogether an entrancing little work, worthy of the place it holds in most hearts.The production is basically the same as when Utah Opera retired it, and it's a good one visually, with evocative set by Ariel Ballif and authentic-looking costuming by Susan Memmott Allred. Byron Dean Ryan conducts with sensitivity, and stage direction by Krista Rodin-Popich brings out the humor, pathos and warm human interactions.
Boy sopranos being subject to the ravages of time, a new Amahl must be sought almost yearly, and this year's, Joseph Heninger-Potter, has every needed quality. His voice is clear, strong and musical, and still secure in the high range, he sings out and enunciates clearly, and he's an appealing and convincing actor, creating a mischievous, curious and loving little boy. It's a magical moment when this Amahl walks. (Scott Anderson White sings Amahl Saturday afternoon.)
Diane Beesley makes an equally human mother, driven to peevishness by poverty, but never unloving. She interacts touchingly with Amahl, and her arias and solos are lovely, projected with fine feeling.
Utah Opera's winning trio of kings are the same as in 1984 and some years before that if memory serves. Dave Arnold as the hard-of-hearing Kas-par, Don Becker and William Goeglein give these lofty characters real individuality, they look regal and sing their solos and ensembles beautifully.
The chorus, comprised of some of Utah Opera's best singers, makes a charming, shy entrance, with their gifts of food and two melodious songs, and a little dance that seems authentically Middle Eastern.
Though old-fashioned, "Hansel and Gretel" has fairy tale appeal and charm, and in its shortened version makes a good companion piece for "Amahl," though its Germanic heaviness comes creaking through at times.
However, the dominant musical influence lies in its simple folk melodies and folklike themes, and with so good a Hansel as Laura Garff and the bubbly Gretel of Susan Deauvono, the piece moves along vivaciously. The two play off each other delightfully in their little dances, their arguments, their fright and rejoicing.
Diane Beesley moves into this piece to create a frightful, bustling witch and has fun with the character though one distinguishes few words. Terry Summerhays makes a bluff and honest father with a big strong voice to match, and Andrea Evans shows fine mezzo quality as the mother.
Other voices of promise are the Dew Fairy of Elizabeth Paniagua-Emerson, and Karen Larsen's Sandman - though both oversing their simple arias a little. More than one singer had difficulty projecting the words clearly in this piece, a thing of necessity, especially for a youthful audience.
Many children and young people fill out this cast, as the 14 guardian angels in pretty blue robes, and gingerbread children in straight lines.