Just before the Christmas holiday, the Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota had a particularly busy weekend; it produced three different programs in two days at the Historic Asolo Theater. We attended two of them: a semi-staged version of Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and a variety show called “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” featuring “Annie” star Andrea McArdle. The performances shared some of the same singers and, except for a couple of imports such as McArdle, most of the talent was local and, for the most part, non-professional.
The afternoon performance of “Amahl,” for example, featured Le Voci di Venezia, an accomplished group of high school singers from Venice High under the direction of a rather self-effacing Stephen Johns. These talented young students had a lovely blend, excellent diction and paid special attention to well-accented rhythms with a wide dynamic range. There were also some excellent, though unnamed, soloists.
“Amahl,” one of the wonders of mid-20th century television operas, didn’t come off quite so well, but it was still good to hear it again. Performed in costume with minimal staging and little theatricality or emotion, it was well sung, and we couldn’t help thinking it would have come off better in a simple concert setting.
Although Amahl is supposed to be a young shepherd boy, Andrea Guaita, a 12-year-old local girl who sings with the Sarasota Young Voices and plays violin with the Sarasota Youth Orchestra, sang the role attractively. She’s an exceptionally musical singer with good diction, and it will be interesting to follow her path. Deborah Berioli, a local soprano, sang the role of the Mother with a rich, mellow sound that managed the low tessitura of the part (originally written for a mezzo), quite well. Tenor Christopher Culpepper and baritones Anthony Offerle and Todd Donovan suitably performed the roles of the three Kings, with 19-year-old Jose Guaita as the Page.
Pianist Mary Jeanne Moorman and flutist Michael Alegria, who offered clarity and support to the singers, accompanied the piece, originally scored for small orchestra. And members of Le Voci di Venezia played the chorus of peasants.
“Amahl” is a particularly dramatic opera that, through Menotti’s music and libretto (yes, he wrote it all), shows us one of the minor miracles of Christmas: a young peasant boy who, through faith, is able to cast aside his crutch, walk, run and even jump. It has wonderful arias for almost everyone; tuneful, beautiful melodies that further the plot and take us to a time when miracles were both astonishing and commonplace. It’s a beautiful story set to sublime music, and we commend the Artist Series for bringing it back to us and introducing it to youngsters who may not have encountered it before.
“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which we attended the next evening, was less than wonderful because, like many talent-show-type events, it was a hodgepodge of miscellany centering around popular Christmas songs performed by a muddle of performers, some more winning than others.
McArdle, who is now 50, has less voice than she had at 14 and seemed to have trouble, not only sustaining her higher notes, but also making any real emotional connection with the audience. She’s professional. She looks good. But there’s an emptiness about her performance that I found rather sad. What used to be remarkable and cute is now hollow and tired. Maybe it was a bad night for her.
Some of the other acts were more positive. A quartet of singers (Johanna Fincher, Amy Connours, Baron Garriott and Timothy O’Connor) from Gloria Musicae had an excellent blend and sound in a group of well-known carols, especially the Wilhousky setting of “Carol of the Bells,” which was originally arranged for a massive chorus and is particularly difficult for four solo voices.
Sixteen-year-old local superstar, Maria Wirries, was featured in two songs, including a lovely new work by James Grant called “Christmas Comes Tomorrow.” Deborah Berioli returned with songs by Alec Rowley and Joaquin Nin, and Todd Donovan, who had played King Balthazar in “Amahl” the day before, was barely recognizable as himself in carols and pop songs. The three distinguished pianists performing with the singers were Lee Dougherty Ross, Alan Corey and, doubling as pianist/musical director, Steve Marzullo.
We should mention one funny moment when Berioli began one of a set of Nin’s “Villancicos” in a Spanish dialect. As do most of these charming songs, this one begins with the syllables “ah” and “ee” (spelled “A-iiii”). A gentleman a few seats away from us said rather loudly, “Can’t understand a word.” Ah, the joys of trying to impress an audience.
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