By Ed Adamczyk
Niagara Gazette — Many productions purport to be “Christmas classics,” but the one-act opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” to be presented by the Nickel City Opera this weekend at North Tonawanda’s Riviera Theatre, has a pedigree unlike the rest.
The work, in which a young disabled boy has a chance encounter with the Three Kings as they approach Bethlehem, was commissioned in 1950 by NBC as television’s first opera broadcast and debuted Christmas Eve 1951 as the first production of “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” with composer Gian Carlo Menotti conducting the NBC Orchestra. Thus, it remains in the memory of many older fans.
“It’s a traditionally-done opera, and the most produced opera in North America,” said Nickel City founder and artistic director Valerian Ruminski, a Western New York native whose career as a globetrotting opera soloist includes the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
Ruminski’s company, now in its eighth year, has cemented itself in the regional firmament of arts organizations, and is headquartered in the Riviera, a magnificently restored vaudeville and movie palace on Webster Street that resembles a European opera house.
Ruminski, the director of the production, noted that “In the Fifties and Sixties, ‘Amahl’ was a staple TV event, and a big part of local live opera in the Seventies and Eighties. It fell off a little by the Nineties, but older fans in particular feel it’s part of the fabric of Christmas.”
For younger fans and those new to opera, it’s a recommended introductory work, easy to follow and enjoy, relatively short and with a kid as the lead character.
The Thanksgiving weekend production, though, is the complete package, with costumes, sets, a chorus, a cast of 20 and the theater’s iconic and powerful Wurlitzer organ as accompaniment.
Amahl is played by 12-year-old Toronto resident Gabriel Gough, with Mary Kay Atlas as the mother, Greg Shepard as Balthazar, James Wright as Melchior, Savid MacAdam as Kaspar, and Nicholas Kilkenny as the page. Nancy Townsend is the choral conductor, and Ivan Docenko will play the organ.
“The organ has its own percussion, and actually doubles as a full orchestra,” added Ruminski, and those who have never heard this remarkable instrument going full-blast is in for a pleasant surprise.
This opera company itself is something of a surprise, a take-chances troupe which has staged on opera on a ship at the downtown Naval Park.
A night, or an afternoon, at the opera need not scare anyone lacking a tuxedo or grounding in the art form. Audiences at previous productions of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” (this is Nickel City’s third year of presenting the work) have included young listeners, date-night couples, music majors and plenty of people who’d never before attended an opera.
North Tonawanda has something of a diamond here, an ambitious and growing company, performing a beloved work to get the Christmas season started (and yes, it’s in English), in a breathtaking venue, shined to the luster it had when it opened in 1926, that feels perfectly at home in the role of an opera house.
The holiday mid-ground between shopping and church is filled with televised cartoons, hectic preparation and so-called festivities that often lead to disappointment. The weekend’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” somehow offers lightness and gravity in equal measure. You couldn’t ask for a more evocative way to get the celebration started.IF YOU GO WHAT: The Nickel City Opera Company presents "Amahl and the Night Visitors" WHERE: Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster Street, North Tonawanda WHEN: 3 and 7 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m., Saturday and 3 p.m., Sunday COST: $25, seniors $20, students $10. MORE INFORMATION: Call the Riviera Theatre box office 692-2413