by Bill Van Sant, Associate Editor
The Cranford Eagle
Saturday afternoon brought holiday entertainment of another sort, with the Celebration Singers of Cranford presenting their first-ever staged concert.
Commissioned by NBC in 1951 to write an English-language, Christmas-themed opera for television, Menotti wrote Amahl to tell the story of a crippled shepherd boy and his widowed mother whose poverty-stricken lives are interrupted when they provide overnight shelter to three travelersthe three kings on their way to the Christ Child. Before the kings depart, miracles occur for this impoverished family, thus proving the sancity of the Child they seek.
This was an excellent choice for the Celebration Singers for many reasons. Being in English, it was accessible to all audience members, many of whom may have shied away from a foreign-language presentation. Furthermore, the central character being a child gave the youngsters in the audience a surrogate on stage, someone to whom they could relate. When Amahl's mother laments her son's exaggerations by singing, What shall I do with this boy?, many parents in the audience smiled their identification with the woman, as many children rooted for their hero to be believed. And when the lad's claim that there are kings at the door proves true, vindication was vicariously shared by all.
Singing the role of Amahl was Jarrod Schlenker, who alternated performances with Paul Sadowski. This is a very difficult role to cast: Amahl is a boy soprano and, outside of a professional arena, it's difficult to find a young man who is old enough to understand his tasks as a performer and young enough not to be plagued by a changing pubescent voice. While Schlenker's vocal performance was not flawless, his characterization of this boy was quite effective, making this youngster from two millenia ago real and approachable in 1999. Like many a kid since and to come, he was simply a boy letting his imagination take him to uncharted territory. And we gladly went along for the ride.
Deborah Eberts brought a rich operatic voice to her performance as his mother. Although some of her physical gestures were superfluous and sometimes distracting the beseeching, hands-outstretched, I'm-singing-opera movement should be stricken from the classical stage her voice filled the church with beautiful soprano tones and her dramatic performance perfectly mixed hope, frustration and love.
Both vocalists were especially effective in the recitative sections, performing some of the best sung conversation this reviewer has heard in quite some time.
Singing the roles of the kings were Nuno DeSousa, Mauel Gonzales Jr. and Khy Garner. All three men were a delight to watch, incorporating tiny details which fleshed out the whole, especially when Garner surreptitiously checked for dust upon entering the home. Their voices blended as beautifully as their acting, nowhere moreso than in Have You Seen the Child? when they and Eberts soared in breathtaking harmonies.
Adding to the quality of the presentation, the acoustics at the Cranford United Methodist Church are astounding, making it possible to hear the tiniest note and subtlest vocal nuance.
The second half of the presentation was a traditional concert, much like those in Celebration's past repertoire. Accompanying the opera and concert was Conrad Erdt.
One can only hope that Pedas and Celebration Singers will keep Amahl as part of their holiday traditions. It is rare to see such acting talent in a group dedicated ostensibly only to choral performance, and it would be a shame for this light to be under a bushel.
Tom Pedas, The Celebration Singers and Children's Chorus