Season of song, story

The Baltimore Sun

Opera AACC paired Gian Carlo Menotti's rarely performed cantata The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi with his familiar Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors for three recent performances. On a Saturday afternoon, the audience was predominately schoolchildren.

They seemed enchanted by Amahl and not frightened by The Bishop, indicating that this performance could appeal to everyone from young novice to casual listener to musical cognoscenti.

Amahl and the Night Visitors - written expressly for television and originally broadcast by NBC on Christmas Eve 1951 - is the story of a poor, crippled shepherd boy and his destitute mother who are visited by the Magi following the star of Bethlehem. It became one of the most frequently performed operas of the 20th century.

Believed to have never before been performed in Anne Arundel County, Menotti's cantata The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi is about the Children's Crusade of 1212. Attended by a nun and a deacon, the dying Bishop of Brindisi recalls in flashbacks being unable to dissuade the zealous children from their mission.

After leaving by boats, a great storm arises, sending the children to their deaths. Their ghosts come to haunt the guilt-ridden Bishop as he is dying.

Opera AACC performed the works Nov. 21, 22 and 23 at AACC's Pascal Center for Performing Arts. The audience at the Saturday show heard all of the elements come together under the skilled direction of Lars Tatom.

Soloists Robert Cantrell and Mary Anne Barcellona were joined by Vincent Capuano as the Deacon in The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi and later by Kent Heckel as Amahl with J. Austin Bitner as Kasper and Douglas Byerly as Melchior and Vincent Capuano as the Page in the second work. Contributing much to the success of both were the AACC Concert Choir directed by Byerly and the All Children's Chorus of Annapolis directed by Liz Barrett.

Adding color, richness and drama was the Opera AACC Orchestra conducted by Anna Binneweg, and made up of students, faculty, volunteers and professionals. Outstanding was Elizabeth Ladana's exquisite flute playing in duet with Cantrell's Bishop.

The orchestra's dramatic opening chords established a somber mood before the Bishop sang of evening's onset, signaling ghosts to unlock his tortured memories. Bass-baritone Cantrell possesses a resonant, warm voice and strong acting skills.

Providing needed balance and a consoling quality was soprano Barcellona, who sang the Nun's role with beauty and nuance while displaying her strong acting skills. Lending poignancy were the youngest voices of the All Children's Chorus, later joined by older children in touching counterpoint - the youngest singing "For we come by God's command to free His tomb in Holy land."

The AACC Concert Choir as Townspeople described the gathering of "singing children, God's own little knights. Barefoot and ragged, and consumed with loneliness, they come toward us."

Drama continued to build until a howling storm arose to sink the children's ship. This was followed by Cantrell passionately singing, "I blessed them to their doom."

Simpler but equally moving was AACC's presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors, with the title role sung sweetly and convincingly by 12-year-old boy soprano and accomplished actor Kent Heckel.

Barcellona again offered flawless diction, meeting every vocal demand while creating a mother trying to help her son. Cantrell brought warmth to the role of Balthazar, and J. Austin Bitner's bright tenor was well-suited to the role of Kaspar. AACC Performing Arts Chairman Byerly sang the role of Melchior.

Again the All Children's Chorus of Annapolis and AACC Concert Choir added distinction, as did a group of AACC dancers. Anna Binneweg and the Opera AACC Orchestra again brought solid professionalism. Kerry Willingham's oboe playing was inspired.

Concerts continue at Pascal Center tomorrow and Saturday with AACC Dance Company's "Forces of Nature," to be followed on Sunday by AACC Concert Band's Holiday Spectacular concert. On Dec. 12 the AACC Orchestra led by Binneweg will offer Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Borodin, and on Dec. 13 the AACC Jazz Ensemble will present "Swingin' with Santa."

To reserve tickets for any of these events call the Box Office at 410-777-2457.

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