Stefan Herheim continues to stimulate and for some, I am sure, perplex. His productions have been features before on Classical Explorer: A Wagner Meistersinger von Nürnberg in which he plays with perspective (among other things!) and, most presciently, “his” Puccini La bohème - another opera associated with Christmas - from Norwegian National Opera in which Puccini's Parisian Garrett is juxtaposed with a dying cancer patient.
This was performaned at Vienna's Theater an Der Wien on December 17-18, 2022 and was the first in a series of Christmas family operas that will be staged there. It was performed in the vernacular (German, in this instance, in a translation by Kurt Honolka and presented as Amahl und die nächtlichen Besucher). Anyway, what follows might not sound too Christmassy ....
As with Bohème, we are back to cancer for this Christmas opera, but this time the cruel illness afflicts a child (Amahl). The opera is set in a children's hospital, and the three Kings initially appear as hospital staff (a male nurse, a doctor, and a priest), later dressed in robes of white, black, and blue (blue is the traditional colour of healing).
When Amahl's mother falls asleep on his bed, the boy, to oboe pipings over a drone, explores the bare room, opening the shattered window to let in a piping shepherd. The Star of Bethlehem appears on one of the walls, almost like a post-bomb crater, and it remains in this form throughout (despite staging moving around it;. it reminded me of Lehnhof's post-nuclear Parsifal!). Later, there is a staircase leading from the stage into the air (but in the direction of the star - a Stairway to Heaven?). Amahl's Mother's big aria is sung on a walkway off the stage and parallel to the audience (so it becomes an outsider's view, a commentary).
All of this is encased in a box on stage - a tale within a tale, Herheim seems to be saying. The walls fragment off into another world, implying the corporeal plane runs concurrently with others - in this case, the world of fairy tale. The opera has a great significance for Herheim, as it was televised ever year in his country (it was originally a television opera, first seen in 1951). Herhein saw it when he was young, as he memorably recalls in an interview in the booklet:
... rather like Obelix in the well-known comic books, I fell into that cauldron of magic potions and it leftest a permanent mark on me.
So, in effect, Herheim takes the Jesus myth for a walk. Even the idea of the Lamb of God idea gets an outing in Amahl's wish to present the baby Jesus with his cuddly toy (a lamb). The illness is there because the child, Amahl, is born to die for Mankind's sins: therefore sacrifice is hard-imprinted from the off. The Three Kings bring gold, frankincense and myrrh, to which Herheim posits healing properties. “Legend has it that Jesus' body was anointed with myrrh brought to him in Bethlehem ... and of course in the story, the crippled Amahl wants to take his own crutch (which Herheim sees as an indication fo terminal illness) to Jesus, and because of the selfless nature of that thought he is cured. He sees this as a gift of love, and of empathy which he shows later in Amahl's actions and assurances to his mother that he will see her again.
The moment of Amahl's death is infinitely touching. Somehow, the boy's angel wings work (how easily they could have looked naff), and we share in the new joy of lightness.
As Herheim points out, miracles happen nowadays, too, which is at least part often reason for staging it in contemporary times ...
In terms of performance, it is hard to imagine a better account. Tempu Ishijima is the boy soprano from the Vienna Boys Choir who takes the title role, brilliantly. His mother, the mezzo Dshamilja Kaiser, is strong of voice and acts perfectly (her roles in 2023, so after Amahl, included Brangäne Tristan at Flanders Opera and Ballet, Ghent, Alardis in Schrecker's Der singende Teufel at Theater Bonn, and Eboli in Don Carlo at Frankfurt. The Three Kings re all owonderful, perhaps especially Wilhelm Schwinghammer's Balthaza. Both tenor Paul Schweinster (as Kaspar) and Nikolay Borchev (Melchior) are exemplary, however, with the Arnold Schoenberg Chor on top form. Norwegian conductor Magnus Loddgard conducts with great sensitivity, his tempi just perfect throughout with plenty of space of the vocal lines to breathe.
A lot of the magic takes place in the pit. Menotti's writing is wonderful and impresses more at each hearing. Norwegian Magnus Loddgard is the keen-eared conductor. Here's Naxos' promotional video:
It's cute that at the end during the applause the orchestra plays and the participants run around the stage, waving goodbyes to the audience.
The Amazon streamed version is available here for purchase, or the physical products (Blu-ray/DVD0 may be purchased via the Amazon link below.