Composer Gian Carlo Menotti plucked the plot for "Amahl and the Night Visitors" from the folk tales of his native Italy.
The old tale is in the tradition of pastoral Christmas settings that gave birth to the Nativity scenes, bringing together Luke's shepherds and Matthew's Magi. But the one-act opera is more than a pageant of plaster figures come to life.
Originally composed for 1951 broadcast on NBC - let us pause here to contemplate a time when a TV network would actually commission an opera - the one-act opera recounts a visit of the Three Kings to a hovel. It's the home of an impoverished mother and her crippled son, Amahl.
What Amahl may lack in physical mobility, he makes up in imagination.
They are a believable mother and son. As much as he tries her patience the mother's love for him is deep, and her worry about his future is profound. Amahl sees his role as lightening her load, even if it is with the fantasies that seem to mock the gravity of their poverty.
The cast of the Bowling Green State University production brings this touching Christmas tale to life. "Amahl and the Night Visitors," directed by Geoff Stephenson, is on stage at the Donnell Theatre in the Wolfe Center for the Arts Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 4 p.m.
As the mother Jennifer Cresswell wears her worry like a heavy cloak, and yet her voice is buoyed with the love of her son, Amahl (performed at Tuesday's rehearsal by young Mattie Russin who alternates in the role with BGSU student Bethany Post).
Russin brings out Amahl's mischievous streak, and it's no wonder that despite the cold hearth and empty larder, her character can still make his mother laugh.
Amahl is game for anything, even the prospect of having to beg. Then late one winter night three kings show up at the door, a vision matches even Amahl's wildest fantasies. The Magi - Tyler Dohar as Kaspar, Richard Channell as Melchior, and Dean Moore as Balthazar with Zach Shock as their page - emerge from the audience, like cr√®che figures come to life. Their rich harmonies fill the house as they process toward the stage.
Dohar has the great comic scene as a deaf and dotty old king, conversing with the impetuous and curious Amahl. Channell and Moore have the heavier, more philosophical lyrics. Their voices blend richly as they describe the child they are searching for, their tones matching the poetry and longing of the words.
For her part the mother imagines her own son in their description. Cresswell as the mother does the heavy emotional lifting, a poor woman tempted by the riches placed before her. Her voice is sure and true as she probes her character's soul and situation.
The orchestra, conducted by Emily Freeman Brown, plays a vital role, setting the emotional mood beginning with the first melancholy melody that rises like the stars over the scene. The ensemble interacts with the cast like another character in the conversational scenes. The score is full of instrumental felicities, including the beautiful oboe solo expertly delivered by Daniel Holland that's at once playful, yet tender.
That solo, Amahl's tune, gets the last word in the opera. The tune will linger as will the emotional tug of this sentimental favorite.