Opera can be so bloody serious. Often quite bloody, and usually very serious. The stage business usually leaves at least one (if not all) of the lead characters dead, bruised, or broken and with a general sense of malaise hanging over the environs in which the story has unfolded. Rest easy, gentle reader, for the duo of works Nashville Opera has combined for its Christmas season, leave one with their spirit elevated, a warm smile, and the sense that the evening has been well-spent.
Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors and Nicolas Lell Benavides and Marella Martin Koch's Pepito have been combined into a double-bill evening. Amahl, which has become a Christmas classic since its premiere in 1952, is joined by Pepito, a new opera that premiered only this year at the Kennedy Center. And in the able hands of Nashville Opera Artistic Director John Hoomes and Musical Director Amy Tate Williams, both halves of this short evening will gear you up for the holidays in ways you might not have expected.
First, allow me to consider Pepito. Some couples will consider a child as a Band-Aid on their faltering relationship. Some consider a pet. Such is the case of Camila and David, who seem to be speaking to each other in languages neither can comprehend. Enter Pepito, a doggo with a baritone voice and soulful puppy eyes that could melt diamonds. Spencer Reichman, the baritone in question, is incredibly good as both dog and his second-half return as King Melchior in Amahl. The journey Pepito takes through his memories and the love he finds in his current life are beautifully created and played.
As to whether the pupper can fix Camila (a marvelous Claire Paschal, who you may remember from this summer's Nashville Opera presentation of Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915) and David (Michael Anderson, whose talents are allowed much more room to shine in Amahl as King Kaspar), we'll have to hope, but an ambitious and charming new work it is indeed. And at the heart of it is genuine connection to something essentially childlike - the wonder of a pet's unconditional love, especially in the face of a marriage where careers have gotten in the way.
And while on the subject of childlike wonder... this time sans doggo... we come to Amahl and the Night Visitors. I assume that most of you are familiar with the Three Wise Men / Kings / Magi, their journey to Bethlehem, and the gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold they toted along. Amahl assumes that they make a wee detour en route from A to B and change the lives of a single mother and her disabled son.
What makes Amahl unique is that it was created for television, not the stage. Premiering on NBC in 1952, Gian Carlo Menotti's work brings into direct focus the incredible riches the Magi are carrying for the Christ child and the humble lives of so many others. Amahl's widowed mother is on the brink and one small fraction of what the Magi bear could change life entirely.
Alan Harrisohn Foeder's Amahl is charming - a boy full of mischief and half-truths that leave his mother's head spinning when actual kings come-a-knock-knock-knocking at her door. The character may be written as playfully untruthful, but he is a sensitive soul left lame and unable to be the shepherd he was raised to become. Kaylee Nichols as the mother wears her sadness, frustration, and desperation on her sleeve. There's no hiding how very close to having nothing they are and it's by her choices that the story reaches its tumultuous conclusion.
Charles Edward Charlton, who appears only in Amahl as King Balthasar makes a splendid third for the beautiful, rich harmonies Menotti composed for the Magi. The magic of using the Noah Liff Opera Center for this production is how the ranging kings are allowed to weave throughout the space in pursuit of the star and the child they believe it heralds.
Now for some good news / bad news. This double-bill runs only through Sunday, so time is short. But the charms are limitless in this uplifting pair of works. While Pepito might not scream Christmas, its value as a foil to remind us that love and connection are at the heart of the holiday season, serves its purpose well. Amahl and the Night Visitors stands the test of time as it approaches its seventh decade of life. Both works of incredible human heart are twin triumphs for Nashville Opera, the talented cast, and the production staff who made it possible.
Pepito and Amahl and the Night Visitors will be performed Saturday, December 14th, and Sunday, December 15th, at the Noah Liff Opera Center at 3622 Redmon Street. Both performances are at 4 p.m. and only limited tickets remain. Tickets are available through TPAC's ticketing website.
CORRECTION: Regreattably, the original version of this review omitted the name of Pepito's librettist, Marella Martin Koch. Pepito features music by Nicolas Lell Benavides and a libretto by Marella Martin Koch and the work premiered at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 2019.