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Happy Birthday, Bill and Jesus!

New York
Metro Church, 410 West 40th Street
12/11/2015 -  
William Mayer: One Christmas Long Ago...
Gina Morgano (Older Brother), Sarah Nicole Batts (Younger Brother), Julianne Borg (Countess), Melissa Parks (Beggar Woman), Anthony Webb (Minister/Sculptor), Dimitrie Lazich (Parsley the Sage), Ron Lloyd (Old Man/Rich Merchant), Larry Long (The King), David Macaluso (Narrator)
Andrea Arts Production: Saffron Chung (Music Director), Gloria Parker (Producing Director), Grethe Barrett Holby (Stage Director), Richard Cordova (Conductor)

R. Cordova, W. Mayer (© Photo@Ken Howard)

From Medieval mystery plays through Rimsky-Korsakov and Gian Carlo Menotti, the Christmas opera has been one of the staples of the musical festival season. A decade after Amahl and the Night Visitors, William Mayer composed his own Christmas opera, and while not as popular as Menotti’s classic One Christmas Long Ago... is more complex harmonically, and equally charming.

Partly in honor of the season, partly to celebrate the composer’s 90th birthday (he was happily in the audience) and partly because it is such a delightful one-hour opera, One Christmas Long Ago (Libretto by the composer, based on Why The Chimes Ring by Raymond MacDonald Alden) was given a single performance last night, presented by Ardea Arts and sung with some highly professional performers.

S.N. Batts, G. Morgano (© Photo@Ken Howard)

The two young heroes...er, in this case, two operatic heroines are brothers, in search of a church high on a hill from where, they had heard, a great Christmas service would be held. Perhaps, they feel, maybe Baby Jesus Himself will appear.

What they don’t know (but what is told to them by an old man who lives near the church) is that high up in the church are bells, bells which haven’t been heard for many many years. They are the purest sounds ever heard, yet nobody knows what they sound like. Perhaps the wind rings them, perhaps angels ring them...

And every year people bring gifts to the church, hoping to hear again those mythical measures.

And so, as the brothers move on to find this magical church, a rich hedge-fund manager (oh, sorry, a rich merchant), a countess, a sculptor all get set to bring their jewels and gold coins and treasures to the church. As the brothers hurry on, though, they find an old beggar-woman on the ground. The younger brother is told to go on to the service, but the older brother decides to sacrifice his pilgrimage to help her...

Needless to say, this is the gift which gets those beautiful chimes ringing. Or in this case, bells played by accompanist Saffron Chung next her piano.

Mr. Mayer certainly knows his opera techniques well. Anybody who can work with the great James Agee (in his prize-winning Death in the Family) or Langston Hughes in a song cycle, is capable of simplifying his language for a Yuletide greeting card. Here, though, the composer, a student of Roger Sessions, did not stint using 1960’s harmonies on the piano, along with good clean lyrical melodies for the cast.

Mr. Mayer did use one quote, a reworking of The Holly and The Ivy, but this was subtly added to the mix, along with an Allelujah chorus or two. Yes, it was conservative modern music, akin to Samuel Barber, the only other composer who had the sensitivity to work with James Agee.

Ardea Opera has performers who were uniformly excellent. I had been familiar before only with Melissa Parks, who was so excellent in Ligeti’s Grand Macabre a few years ago. Her Beggar Woman mezzo was shattering, so very very operatic in her duet with Older Brother Gina Morgano that perhaps children might have been frightened. But the one child I saw in the audience smiled during the whole show.

Ms. Morgano was excellent, but Younger Brother Sarah Nicole Batts had such purity that she seemed the epitome of a Christmas opera setting. Ron Lloyd had to opposing roles: the Old Man who related the bell-tale and the Rich Merchant who couldn’t carry all his gold in one treasure chest. He and the other men all had resounding voices, as they told their tales and tried to provide their gifts.

A.Webb (© Photo@Ken Howard)

The one singer who had both humor and an all-powerful message was Anthony Webb, first as the creative Sculptor, and then the Minister who explains all things.

The chorus was small, but voices clear, the conducting was spirited, and Mr. Mayer’s libretto kept far away from anything saccharine and close to amiability.

It was, in other words, a tale of innocence and simplicity, written for children but with “grown-up” music, produced with enough animation to make an early adornment for a holiday season.

Harry Rolnick



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