Having grown up with Amahl and the Night Visitors as part of the annual American Christmas television tradition (Gian Carlo Menotti wrote the opera for the new medium of television, and it premiered on Christmas Eve 1951, broadcast by NBC from Rockefeller Center), I took my daughter to MusikTheater an der Wien for the launch of their new family opera series expecting Menotti’s biblical vision, albeit sung in German. In the story I grew up with, a young, crippled boy and his poor mother are visited by the three kings following the star to the Christ Child. Young Amahl is miraculously healed and joins them on their journey. There was magic aplenty in director Stefan Herheim’s bold recontextualization of the tale... and there needed to be to make up for the devastating reality he set out to convey instead. In short, I certainly was not expecting to be brought to tears during a 50-minute children’s holiday opera. 

Wiener Sängerknabe (Amahl) and Dshamilja Kaiser (Amahl's Mother)
© Monika and Karl Forster

Herheim made the controversial choice to modernize the plot, transplanting it from its biblical setting in the Holy Land to a modern day children’s hospital. Amahl, a terminally ill cancer patient with a lively imagination, is greeted by the three kings who resemble hospital personnel. Their opulent robes (costuming by Sebastian Ellrich) are brilliant nods to turquoise scrubs, a doctor’s white coat and the priest’s black robes. Dancers (Tura Gomez, Sophie Melem, Alessi Rizzi, Beatriz Scabcra) flit in and out throughout as figments of Amahl’s imagination, a heavenly shepherd or doubles of the kings (choreography by Beate Vollack). 

Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Balthazar), Nikolay Borchev (Melchior) and Paul Schweinester (Kaspar)
© Monika and Karl Forster

The stage design (Sebastian Ellrich, Karl Wiedemann) is likewise a blend of bleak and made-for-TV magic. A white room with a hospital bed is framed with fluffy clouds and backed with a Technicolor star, but opens to reveal a brilliantly lit night sky and a staircase from heaven, from which little angels descend trippingly. If you manage not to think too hard about the fact that these angels are bald, dead children exchanging hugs and stuffed animals with their mourning parents, it’s all quite magically and skillfully done (dramaturgy Christian Schrödter). Even at the close where, instead of a joyful healing dance, Amahl lies lifeless in the hospital bed and his spirit prepares to depart, the German phrase “er geht” – which means both “he’s walking” and “he’s leaving” – was exploited thoughtfully to make this reading work.

Dshamilja Kaiser (Amahl's Mother) and Wiener Sängerknabe (Amahl)
© Monika and Karl Forster

Musically there is not a complaint to be had. Though some of Magnus Loddgård’s tempi set out on the slow end of things to my taste, the Wiener Symphoniker played beautifully (extra applause for the oboe soloist who Menotti uses to great effect). Vocally, Dshamilja Kaiser was excellent, her mezzo ringing clearly throughout the extensive range of the part of Amahl’s mother. Even in street clothes, she absolutely gleamed in “All that gold”. The (unfortunately) unnamed Sängerknabe was a dream in the title role, exhibiting the boy soprano straight-tone clarity cultivated and cherished within that system. Paul Schweinester was a charming Kaspar, and I could have listened to Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s Balthazar-bass for quite a bit longer than the role calls for. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir was able to not only sing but dance effectively with the rest of the cast, defending their titles as the most interesting and versatile opera chorus in the city (prepared by Erwin Ortner). 

Amahl and the Night Visitors
© Monika and Karl Forster

Those who want their holiday seasons filled with nothing but joy and sugar and miracles will probably not be happy with this Amahl and its unusual blend of whimsy and devastation. The holiday season, however, is not only about joy; the real human pains which sometimes accompany it – loss, disappointment, grief, abandonment – seem to cut twice as deep. Maybe learning to experience magic while going through hard things is part of the season too.