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Published: Saturday, 12/20/2003

'Amahl' a bracing production

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN EASY FOR TOLEDO OPERA TO GLIDE THROUGH ITS CURRENT PRODUCTION OF GIAN CARLO MENOTTI'S CHRI

It would have been easy for Toledo Opera to glide through its current production of Gian Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, which opens tonight in the Valentine Theatre.

After all, this pleasing 50-some minute opera has become a repertory staple because of its Christmas focus rather than its dramatic qualities. A cheery holiday show might have been enough to satisfy most viewers.

Instead, the company's artistic director, Renay Conlin, has given artistic values top priority. Amahl, which has been showing to area schoolchildren for the past two days, is a bracing production, delightful to see and hear. Casting and stage direction are uniformly strong.

Director Lorna Haywood has carefully focused on the opera's human qualities, on personal questions of belief -belief in a child's word, belief in the power of a mother's love. Amidst such immediacy, Menotti's broader notions of the mystery of Christmas became secondary.

This is the way it should be. It's the little things that count, Haywood reminds us.

Briefly, the opera tells of the encounter between the three kings who, while on their journey to present gifts to the Christ child, have stopped to rest at the dwelling of the lame boy Amahl and his destitute mother.

The adults learn much from the encounter. The kings, pleasant enough fellows if a bit shallow, discover that charity begins at home and that fantastic wealth is a fa<0x00E7>ade that can obscure deeper realities. Amahl's hard-bitten mother learns that life's inner gold is built through acceptance and perseverance.

As an embodiment of innocence, Amahl reminds us that giving makes us free.

These, at any rate, are some of the issues that the opera offers. But not to worry if simple entertainment is your desire.

The production is invariably engrossing, with fine singing, elegant costumes, and nimble dancing by the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble.

Mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi is captivating as Amahl's plucky mother. Like a real mom, she loses her temper and aches with love for her child. She will do anything for him.

The opulently dressed kings are magnificent to behold but more avuncular than stately. Tenor Randall Reid-Smith brings wonderful spirit to the hearing-impaired King Kaspar. Zeffin Quinn Hollis and Ashley Howard Wilkinson give gentle weight to their roles as kings Melchior and Balthazar.

Eleven-year-old Joshua Craig Hunt was fetching as Amahl in the performance I attended. He alternates performances with Edward Lee. Both children sing in the Boychoir of Ann Arbor.

Thomas Conlin's conducting was well paced.

Toledo Opera presents "Amahl and the Night Visitors" at 7:30 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St. Tickets range from $11 to $17 for adults, $7 to $13 for children under 16. Information: 419-255-7464.



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