For those of you who don’t know or remember Anna Russell [1911-2006], she was sort of a music humorist, similar to Victor Borge (remember him?), who in her concerts did demonstrations and sketches on various music-related subjects. This English-Canadian artist also sang and played piano. One of her most famous and popular routines is a hilarious synopsis of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas. There are recordings of it available, if you want to check it out for yourself. Why the bit works so well is because it is funny even if you are not familiar with the operas themselves. One can enjoy a good story that they haven’t heard before. I only mention this because I am doing something similar with an opera of my own choosing for analysis.
My favorite one-act opera happens to be Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian-Carlo Menotti. This is the first opera to be commissioned specifically for television, and it premiered on NBC on Christmas Eve, 1951. Since I know the work very well, having heard it often, studied it and even performed it several times, I am aware of the flaws and inanities in the story, which I am about to point out. Menotti himself did his own libretto, so he is the one at whom I will be throwing shade. It’s too bad that he is not alive to receive my critique. I hope you enjoy my irreverence.
The title character, Amahl, is a 12-year-old, “crippled,” shepherd boy, who walks with a crude crutch, which he made himself, he tells us. His mother, who is unnamed, is purportedly a widow, and Amahl’s father is never mentioned. We don’t know who the hell he is or how he “died.” Those are sardonic quotation marks, by the way.
The opera opens with a short prelude for string orchestra then segues to Amahl sitting on a rock outside his hut, playing on his makeshift pipe. But what we hear instead is a virtuosic oboe! I am already thinking, Gee, if he is that good a player, why isn’t he enrolled in a music school or playing in a youth orchestra somewhere? It is night and we don’t know what time it is, but Amahl’s mother calls him inside to go to bed. We don’t know if this is a school night or if Amahl even attends school, so why does he have to go to bed when he’s not tired or sleepy?
You know about the famous Star-in-the-East. Amahl tries to tell his mother about this fantastic Star that is lighting up the whole sky, and it has a tail, no less! But instead of taking a look herself to verify his story, she just comes right out and calls him a liar. You see, he’s always making up stuff, so why should she believe him this time? She then informs her son that since they had to sell all their sheep and everything else of any value, they will have to become door-to-door beggars. This news actually delights Amahl, and he sees it as a fun adventure. He is a little Pollyanna, that one.
As soon as Mother and son retire to their straw pallets, the Three Kings (and their Page) start their approach from wherever…on foot! We don’t know why they picked this hut at which to stop. You will see later that there were plenty other options. Was it the first one that they came to? They don’t say. So when King Melchior knocks on the door, instead of the Mother getting up to see who it is, she orders poor, crippled Amahl to hobble over to the door. I mean, it’s night, and she is the adult who should be the one answering the door. Whoever it is, they are probably calling to see her, not Amahl.
Then when he tells her that there is a king out there wearing a crown, of course, she doesn’t believe him again. The knocking continues, and twice more she sends Amahl to the door. The third time when he informs her that now the Kings are three, and one of them is black, that does it. “Oh, Lord, what am I going to do with this boy?!” Well, you could go to the door yourself, which you should have done in the first place! She finally does, and finds that everything Amahl has said is entirely true, including that bright Star with the tail that is guiding the Kings’ journey. She never apologizes to Amahl, however, for accusing him of lying to her. I wonder why Amahl did not see all three Kings when he went to the door the first time. Maybe the other two were around the side of the hut taking a piss or dump.
King Balthazar introduces themselves with, # May we rest a while in your house and warm ourselves by your fireplace? # The woman explains that she ain’t got shit to offer them, but they are welcome to come in anyway, accompanied by a sprightly, orchestral march. The Mother then leaves to go gather some wood for the fire, leaving her young son with four perfect strangers. In this day and age, who would do that? Even then, it was not a smart thing to do. It would have made more sense to send Amahl out to gather the wood. She doesn‘t know anything about these men. They could be imposters posing as kings to gain people‘s trust. They might be combing the countryside, looking for children to sell into slavery and prostitution. Why did they pick this particular house to visit? Amahl appears to be the only thing of any potential value here. And, too, why is she getting more wood now? She is being so considerate about these strangers’ comfort. I guess she didn’t care if she or her little boy froze to death during the night.
But this gives the boy a chance to make amusing repartee with the Kings, especially with the hard-of-hearing Kaspar, with his vicious parrot and his drawered box containing precious stones, colored beads and licorice! (# This is my box…I never travel without my box. #) Amahl, at least, must have some suspicions when he asks the visitors if they are real kings and wants to know where they came from. The Mother could just as well have been present for the scene. In fact, these are questions that she should be asking!
The Mother returns with the firewood and actually accuses Amahl of being a nuisance. Then why didn’t she stay there with them then? So now she sends Amahl out to summon the neighbors to bring whatever they have to offer the guests. A little while ago, the Mother was so insistent about Amahl going to bed. Now she has him answering the door and running all over the creation doing stuff that she should be doing. I thought that the boy needed so much rest, according to her.
While Amahl is gone, the Mother takes note of the gold and stuff in the room. King Melchior informs her that the gold and other gifts are for the Child. “The child! Which child?” she inquires excitedly. They don’t know. They are only following that Star. They then do a lovely quartet, “Have You Seen a Child,” the Kings referring to the Christ Child, and the Mother referring to her own child, Amahl, who needs the gold more than some baby that they don‘t even know. In the song, the Kings give a detailed description of some child that they have never laid eyes on.
Now here is where it gets a little strange, or more so, if you‘re already there. Amahl is supposed to be out telling the neighbors about his distinguished guests. First of all, why didn’t his mother do all that herself while she was just out there? She might have had more credibility. Why would they believe anything Amahl has to say? They all know what a pathological liar he is, and his own mother doesn’t even believe him most of the time. And second, if it is late enough to be bedtime, wouldn’t the others all be abed as well? So Amahl has to wake everybody up with this fantastic story about these three Kings (and Page) at their hut, and they buy it?
But here they all come anyway. This is your standard opera chorus. Check out what they bring to the party: a big assortment of fruit, nuts, cheese, herbs, spices and sweets. Now, I ask you… If they have all this food at their disposal, why had they not shared any of it with Amahl and his mother before now? The poor blokes are in there starving, and these other folks are living high on the hog! What’s up with that? Also, if there is fruit and cheese and other stuff available for everybody else, apparently, why doesn’t this woman have access to the same items as well? That doesn’t make any sense. But they are willing to bestow all these goodies on some errant strangers just on the word of little lying Amahl. How did they know that these Kings even existed until they actually saw them in the flesh? The boy might be trying to con them for his own purposes.
Plus, the score has these choristers billed as Shepherds. So, if they have flocks of sheep to tend, why did Amahl’s mother have to sell all of hers? With them all living so close together, how could they discern which sheep belonged to whom? I would think that they would have a situation like sharecroppers. If the people in the community all do the same thing, why wouldn’t they share what they have with each other? When they are first introduced in the opera, it’s made to look like Amahl and his mother are living alone in isolation wherever they are, and then we find out that there are all these neighbors nearby who are apparently doing all right for themselves. Is the woman just lazy and will not work?
Since I tend to question everything, I am wondering, to whom exactly did she sell their sheep, and what did the purchasers of same do with them? Whatever it is, couldn’t they have done the same with them and cut out the middleman? Also, where are Amahl and his mother going to do this door-to-door begging? Surely not these present neighbors, or they would have already hit them up. Is there another residential town or village nearby, and if so, why didn’t the Kings (and Page) go there instead of out here in the boonies?
Now comes the compulsory dance sequence. I suppose the Kings use this time to eat, because when the dance is finished, Balthazar politely tells them all to get the fuck out, so that they can get some sleep, as they still have a long way to go. # Thank you, good friends, for your dances and your gifts. But now we must bid you good night. We have little time for sleep and a long journey ahead. # There is no mention in the score whether all the vittles were consumed, and if there were any leftovers, did the shepherds leave it there or take it all back with them? The ensuing orchestral interlude, the same music that opens the opera, denotes the passage of time of several hours, I suppose, as the lighting outside the hut indicates it is now dawn.
The Mother is the first to awaken and immediately is fixated on the Kings’ treasure and sings an aria about what she could do with “All That Gold.” The others must be really sound sleepers, because the aria builds in volume and intensity until near the end, when she is screaming fortissimo high G’s, and nobody wakes up! That is, until she actually seizes the gold, waking up the Page who is guarding it.
It is at this point that the Page finally gets to sing something. We all thought that he was mute until then. Since this is a made-up story, it’s okay to embellish it with extra characters, so I guess this added Page serves as the Kings’ sidekick or squire. He charges Ms. Thing of trying to steal their gold, and they struggle over it. # Thief! Thief! I’ve seen her steal some the gold. She’s a thief; don’t let her go. She’s stolen the gold! Give it back or I’ll tear it out of you!… # Amahl tries to defend his mother by attacking the Page with hits and kicks.
The Kings, however, go easy on her, and Melchior even tells her that she may keep the gold, as the Christ Child does not need it. Well, isn’t that white of him? I mean, that’s the least they can do. After all, this impoverished woman took them in for the night, gave them a place to rest and sleep, fed them and entertained them. They should pay her something, don‘t you think? She is not in any position to be giving out free room and board. and to wealthy royalty, besides! So I don’t consider it stealing, exactly, as she was only taking what she thought was owed her. But then the woman offers to give back the gold! What’s wrong with her? Take the money, honey! You deserve it. Why are you feeling all guilty now? They said you could have it, so just take it and shut up!
Let me mention this about the Kings, incidentally. Melchoir seems to be the head King, as he has the most to sing in the opera, and Balthazar, the traditional black one, has the least to sing. Oh, he gets to comment here and there, but he does not have a real aria, short as they are anyway, like the other two do. You can assess that decision by Menotti anyway you want to. I’m just saying. If I had my way, I would make Melchior the black king. Why not? It wouldn’t change anything. Amahl only says that one of them is black. He didn’t say which one.
As the Kings (and the Page) prepare to leave, Amahl, too, wants to give something to this mysterious Child. But wait! Amahl was outside when the Kings were discussing the Child. This is the first he’s heard about it. So why didn’t he ask, “What you talkin’ about, Willis? What child?” The only thing he has of his own besides his pipe (oboe) is his crutch. So he offers that, saying that the kid may need it someday. And, of course, that is the only available wooden stick in the entire kingdom, right?
Get ready. It’s “miracle” time! Amahl holds up his crutch to give to the Kings and takes a step toward them. The Mother immediately tries to stop him, insisting, “But you can’t, you can’t!” But he can, apparently. After he has walked over and hands his crutch to Kaspar, Amahl proceeds to jump and caper around the room. Of course, the Kings all believe that the boy has been healed by the grace of God through the Holy Child, located who-knows-where.
Here is what I think. It really was no miracle; what happened was just this. What if Amahl was already able to walk and was never lame at all, but only was told that he was by his mother? It’s never said what Amahl’s specific affliction is. Does he have polio or something debilitating? How was he getting around before he made his crutch? Maybe at some time years ago he had trouble walking on his own, but if he had never attempted to since or lately, how would he know if he could or not, until he tried? Even so, he was at least ambulatory, with the help of the crutch. He wasn’t paralyzed in a wheelchair or anything. So it was not some great miracle that he could walk without the crutch. Give me a break!
I don’t trust that Mother anyhow. Maybe she wants to keep Amahl disabled, so that he will have to depend on her always. Some parents do that to their kids, you know. Keep them ill so that they will never leave them. There is even a name for it: Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Consider, too, that they will have a better chance at begging with a poor crippled child in tow to pity.
As Amahl is enjoying his newfound mobility, his Mother warns him, “Be careful now, my darling, you must take care not to hurt yourself.” Oh, leave the boy alone! She sounds as if she does not want to him to be well. I also contend that a person who is always doubtful of other’s words is usually because they are a chronic liar themself. Is she really a widow, for instance? We have only her word for it. What else might she be lying about?
The Kings (and the Page) then make a strange request. # Oh, blessed child, may I touch you? # What? Why do they want to do that? Maybe they are pedophiles, after all! Amahl does allow it. I guess it is up to the individual director of each production where they should touch the boy. When the Page asks to cop his feel, however, Amahl is reluctant, as he is still miffed with him for assaulting his mother earlier.
Now “Mommie Dearest” is about to do something else very strange. Amahl wants to go with the Kings (and the Page) to give his crutch to the Child himself. And she lets him go! She has been so overprotective of him, but now all of a sudden, she is going to relinquish her only child to a bunch of strange, dirty old men? She doesn’t even ask where exactly they are going or when they will return. Doesn’t she care? They assure her, “We will take good care of him. We’ll bring him back on a camel’s back.” Oh, really? If they have a camel (or more) somewhere, why are they all walking? Yeah, I’ll just bet they will take care of him. Maybe they do plan on molesting him, selling him or pimping him out. If it were my child, I would go along with them. Why did she choose to stay behind? What is keeping her there? Her actions don’t make good sense. Maybe she wants some time alone in order to hook up with a local, secret paramour, perhaps? You know, get rid of the kid for a while so that she can do some trashing.
As they are saying their goodbyes, here are Mother’s instructions to her son: “Don’t forget to wear your hat.” And what will happen if he doesn’t wear it? # Wash your ears. # Is that the only things that he needs to wash? The boy does not even own a toothbrush! # Don’t tell lies. # Take your own advice, bitch! Then Amahl makes these requests to his mother: # Feed my bird…Watch the cat. # Uh, what bird? What cat? They don’t have anything to eat themselves, but they have the means to care for a fucking bird and cat?! I’m not making any of this up, you know.
So then off they go to who-knows-where. The Shepherds are up now, too, to sing us one last parting chorus, as our travelers make their way down the road…on foot. Now, little Amahl has just learned how to walk unassisted only a few minutes ago, and now they are making him walk this long distance?! You know, now would be a good time to produce that alleged camel they alluded to earlier. Amahl starts playing his pipe again (which still sounds like an oboe), and it’s the same tune as before. It must be the only song that he knows.
[Other holiday-related articles: Nativity Redux; Simple Gifts?]