Gian-Carlo Menotti tells how Hieronymus Bosch’s The Adoration of the Magi in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art stirred his Italian childhood Christmas memories, inspiring him to write Amahl and the Night Visitors. This was the first opera composed for television, telecast live on Christmas Eve 1951. Unlike Father Christmas, who represents a secular Christmas, or Santa Claus, who has lost his connection with the generous Saint Nicholas, Menotti was moved by the tradition of the three kings bringing gifts for the Christ child originating in Matthew’s Gospel: wise men from the east following a star that lead them to Bethlehem, bringing gifts for the new born baby Jesus.

Amahl is the story of a crippled boy and his crutch, and his poor mother, who has had to sell their sheep and whose goat has died, leaving them with no income. They welcome to their home three kings, journeying to find a special child who will build a kingdom on love alone, and will “bring us new life and receive our death”. Amahl asks the kings to take him with them to this king, and they promise to bring him back on a camel.

All round the world at this time of year many groups, some professional some amateur, most with small budgets and generous involvements, plan to perform Amahl. It had been 56 years since a fully staged version had been performed in Adelaide, so there have been many Menotti admirers eager to enjoy this opera. Producer Emma Knights sees it as an opportunity “to spread the message that giving to others can sometimes be the greatest gift you can give yourself”. For Karen Lettice, playing the role of Mother, who holds the performance together, this has been “a dream come true”. Lettice would like to see this opera, which “offers an inspiring and engaging seasonal activity for the whole family to share”, become a regular event.

The set was basic, faithfully depicting the poverty of Amahl and his mother; the orchestra, under the leadership of Ian Boath, was small and remarkably good; the lighting was simple and focused, and the costumes, highlighting a clear distinction between rich kings and poor everyone else, looked very borrowed.

Twelve-year old treble Aidan Hutson-Hill began nervously as Amahl, soon gaining confidence as the beautiful sweet timbre of his voice shone out; his “good night” duet with Lettice, a strong resonating soprano with clear diction, became the first of many moments of remarkable singing.

Tenor Branko Lovrinov (Kaspar), baritone Andrew Turner (Melchior) and bass Keith Hempton, (Balthazar) pleasantly blended their voices as they wended their way to Amahl’s door. Surprise registered on the boy’s face when he saw a king there and his singing became more excited. His sad “I was a shepherd” in response to Balthazar’s “little boy, what do you do?” I thought one of the most moving moments in the opera, and a transitional moment, bringing together a young lad making his debut with a veteran who has sung opera for more years than I suspect he cares to remember.

Lettice sang with deep feeling throughout, nowhere more passionately than her “All that gold!” aria expressing her struggle with temptation, finally succumbing, for the best of reasons, to steal Melchior’s gold. When told she can keep the gold for “the Child [they] seek doesn’t need gold” as “He will build his kingdom on love alone” her reply “for such a King I’ve waited all my life” became possibly the high point of the opera.

It encouraged Amahl to offer Him his crutch, and in so doing, he discovered he could walk. The uplifting king’s trio, eventually joined by Mother “It is a sign from the Holy Child … This is a sign from God” with hands raised high, sung as an affirmation of the greatness of this new born King, and the Mother-son final duet as Amahl prepared to leave her to go with the kings to “thank the Child himself” the most emotionally poignant singing of the night.

The choir of shepherds, composed of people of all ages, made the most of their small part, and the beautiful bass of young Page, Macintyre Howie-Reeves, equally impressive in his minor role.

This was an opera on many levels. It is a story about the pleasure and rewards of giving – a great lesson for children to learn. It is a beautiful introduction for many, especially the young, to the medium of opera. And it is a story that places a focus on the specialness of Christ at Christmas, and the message of love that He brings.