It still gives me goosebumps. The 1951 RCA recording of Amahl and the Night Visitors - starring Chet Allen, Rosemary Kuhlmann, David Aiken, Andrew McKinley and Leon Lishner, conducted by a young Thomas Schippers - has always been the benchmark for this work. I saw the 1951 premiere of this opera, and most of the broadcasts since then. Even the DVD with almost the same cast as the 1951 (except Amahl) is a little less perfect. The Stratas movie (directed by Menotti) was wonderful, and yet still didn't surpass the recording that is now 57 years old! Don't let the age deter, it is still a must.
But what of the new Naxos release. Well, first of all everyone sings in a more operatic fashion, coming from stage performances that preceded this recording. Kirsten Gunlogson has a rich voice and sings the role of the mother expertly. Her dramatic stance and timbre are similar to Kuhlmann. Her "All that gold" builds to a thrilling climax. She is not quite as smooth as her counterpart, but it is not a troublesome difference, and even Kuhlmann changed her ease with the role as she matured. The three kings are not quite as intimate as on the RCA, but again this is singing for the theater not microphones (even though it is not an "in performance" recording.) Their voices are well dilineated, with highest vocal and diction honors going to Todd Thomas as Melchior. The other two are not far behind. Alastair Willis conducts a performance that, in the musical numbers, is quite similar to Schippers. Only the recitatives are too "lyric" which, in this case means, too sung and not parlando (spoken) enough. Some of them are really just too slow. This recording ticks in at 49 minutes as opposed to RCA 46, and most of that difference is in the recitatives. The large chorus does their job very well. (The recording gives a sound "cover" to the chorus a bit, but not objectionably.)
Why have I left Amahl to last? It seems a shame to pick on young Ike Hawkersmith, because in many ways he does an excellent job. He is musically alert, squarely on pitch, and he has some real ideas about how to get to us with certain lines. "Have you - have you a stone that would cure a crippled boy?" is really sad and plaintive. But all the intelligence and musicallity can't disguise the fact that his voice is rather small and bordering on whiny. There is dramatically good reason for this, but it doesn't work quite as well on disc as it probably did in the theater. This role and Mr. Hawkersmith will make or break the recording for most. I still enjoyed it - but there is still the audible image of Allen, William McIver (in 1955) and Robert Sapolsky to contend with.
The filler, My Christmas by Menotti, is a pleasant choral work. It doesn't excite the Christmas spirit in me as much as the opera does. But it is still a pleasant work, running 12 and a half minutes, and worth having a new recording of.