The Nickel City Opera production of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" has now settled into place as a seasonal staple for the company, bringing new and old listeners to their base at North Tonawanda's Riviera Theatre. It's no surprise really since this particular short opera has been an audience pleaser for decades, ever since it was first broadcast on NBC in 1951.
Along with Handel's "Messiah", "Amahl and the Night Visitors" is now a Christmas chestnut, one that the Nickel City troupe and other regional opera companies – including Opera Sacra, who donated the set for this production – have presented in the past and will undoubtedly stage in the future.
In the space of less than an hour, an audience gets to see Amahl, a poor, crippled shepherd boy, and his widowed mother play host to a trio of kings and their page, invite a batch of fellow peasants into their home to witness said visitation, and prepare Amahl to join with the royal party in their search for an infant king.
It starts off with a twist on the "boy who cried wolf" theme because the mother, who has called her son to bed, doesn't believe him when he talks about the size of the star residing in the heavens. She relates previous tales Amahl has told her about imaginative creatures he'd seen and, with some justification, refuses to step outside where the stellar wonder is actually taking place.
With a knock at the door, reality enters their lives with royal force, but one that the tired mother, who has sent her son to answer the door, wearily rejects until she steps up to the door and witnesses the truth of her child's words.
The Riviera Theatre has a huge Wurlitzer organ (played by Ivan Docenko) with a massive number of stops and effects providing the sonic backdrop in place of a pit orchestra. Conductor Nancy Townsend is in the pit, dead center on the stage, keeping time and cueing the singers on their entries. Valerian Ruminsky, the director, is a well-known opera performer in his own right, and this particular production, with the actors moving from moment to moment, is obviously influenced by his own experiences on the boards.
Since the singers wear no microphones, a lot depends on their ability to project into the theater space. In that way it is similar to the way that operas and their practitioners used to do business in the old days. That it also happens to lessen the financial load on the books of a shoestring operation deserving of more funding just makes that particular acoustic choice perfectly understandable. It's also a good reason to recommend getting a seat in the center section, toward the stage.
The young Gabriel Gough offers a credible performance as Amahl and Mary Kay Atlas' take on the Mother is solid. The three kings/wise men all are capable, including David MacAdam's version of Kaspar, the partially deaf and totally batty king. There are dancers, a competent chorus of peasants and a camel that needs to be seen to be believed.
When all is said and done, this version of "Amahl" is pleasant and unassuming, fit for families and those looking for a short operatic offering to break up the season's shopping frenzy.
Amahl and the Night Visitors
Presented by Nickel City Opera. Friday night, 7 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda.Tickets are $10-$25. Call 692-2413 or visit www.rivieratheatre.org.