The holidays are such a hectic time each year that I miss most of the excellent concerts that are performed annually in celebration of the season. But this year I was lucky – the Independent Opera Company, founded by Galina Barskaya, presented The Gift of the Magi and Amahl and the Night Visitors on the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th, at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Culver City.
Sets were minimal: two padded metal chairs, a dresser and a small table for Magi, and three padded metal chairs and a stool for Amahl. Full costumes helped the casts create the ambiance needed to tell the stories, plus both casts did an excellent job making the individual characters believable and sympathetic. Scott Blois directed the staging and Barskaya provided musical and artistic direction, plus she accompanied the productions on a grand piano from an alcove to the side of the sanctuary.
First on the program was The Gift of the Magi by David Conte, the familiar O. Henry story of the young married couple with no money at Christmas time, each of whom sacrifices their most prized possession to pay for a gift for the other – she sells her hair to buy him a watch fob, he sells his grandfather’s watch to buy silver and gold combs for her hair. Brooke deRosa portrayed Della, with glorious, thick auburn curls falling halfway down her back and a shimmering spin to her lyrical soprano. Her voice was easy to understand, light and clean with a lovely rapid vibrato and a compelling warmth and color. The opening duet with Jim, sung by Steve Chavez, was tender and touching as they both promised NOT to buy each other gifts for Christmas. Steve’s clear tenor voice carried easily through the house, a good match for Miss deRosa in its youthfulness and resonance.
Jessica Mamey’s vibrant mezzo swept the room with its energy and ringing tone as she introduced the role of Maggie, Della’s best friend. Effortless and spontaneous in the outspoken character, she moved with the music to create a terrific change of mood from the more gentle romantic opening scene. Her aria, “Tonight there’s a full moon”, was delivered unflinchingly with solid coloratura behind the superstitious threat, “if you cut your hair today you’ll be bald for sure!” As Della and Maggie left the stage to sell Della’s hair, three Magi (sung by Louis Orren, Misha Barsky and Tu Nguyen) entered through a side door to deliver the moral of the story, that “wise people among us follow” the way of the ancient wise kings, carrying “to those they love with their hearts gifts that are precious…”, a short and lovely trio. Terry Welborn, as Jim’s good friend, Henry, was totally in character as an older, wiser and wryly jaded pal. His strong bass well suited the sung/spoken style of their duet, and his experienced style onstage grounded the action of the story.
After a brief intermission (accentuated by tasty refreshments in the lobby), the IOC presented Amahl and the Night Visitors by Giancarlo Menotti:
Cynthia Leigh sang the part of the Mother, dressed in dark hair and clothes, demonstrating her poverty and nervous anxiety in every gesture and facial expression. Accustomed to seeing her in coloratura soprano roles, I enjoyed how this part fit into her lower range. She has a natural, mellow, well projected sound, very relaxed and appropriate for the role. The child, Amahl, was performed by Mason Purece, who knew the part well and gave us a pure, clear, secure soprano sound with excellent intonation and rhythm. His second year in the role, he was at ease with it and obviously enjoyed portraying the character. A favorite moment was his miming of answering the front door when the three Magi knocked. There was no door-prop on stage, but I clearly heard it slam three times in my mind after he mimed “opening” and quickly “shutting” it, almost horrified each time at discovering not just one, not even two, but three kings in royal garb asking for shelter for the night.
King Kaspar (Louis Orren, tenor), King Melchior (Eugene Carbajal, bass baritone), King Balthazar (Terry Welborn, bass) and their page boy (Steve Chavez, tenor) appeared onstage richly dressed in kingly robes and crowns, bearing golden boxes enclosing rich gifts for a mysterious baby. Orren conveyed a whimsically nutty character in a brief soliloquy about his box, while Welborn was short and gruff in his pointed responses to the child’s impertinent questions. Carbajal and Welborn both offered wonderful, deep, reverberating bass tones in their duet, contrasting nicely with Leigh’s mournful soprano, finishing in a quartet with the mother and all three kings.
Shepherds and shepherdesses processed in, bringing bread and cheese to feed the visitors and favoring us with a dance by the women. Sharon Valdez started the dance with minimal, elegant gestures and a softly blushing smile. Her graceful hands cast a spell on the kings and on the audience as she added small movements with her feet and body until another shepherdess joined her, then a third. The three of them executed a simple, beautifully choreographed folk dance that was a highlight of the show. The chorus of shepherds was well-rehearsed, with a pleasing sound and a nice balance between the voices.
Ms. Leigh powerfully communicated her desperate desire for the resources to provide for her child, driven as she was to steal a few pieces of the gold while the Magi slept. Purece’s defense of his mother against the page, who caught her in the theft, was full of its own wildish intensity, he insisting that she was good and incapable of doing anything that was wrong. The relationship between the two of them really became defined in this moment, as they risked everything for each other.
The final scene was deeply moving, with Leigh watching her son depart with the Magi while she held back tears, waving goodbye and clutching her heart as if to keep it from breaking.
Both productions were well done, with great casting choices and much artistry. It was a very enjoyable evening spent in reflection on what makes life truly worth living.
Click here to visit Independent Opera Company’s website.