Gift of the Magi


By Scott MacClelland

CARMEL VALLEY’S Hidden Valley Opera Ensemble last produced Nicholas Giardino and David Conte’s one-act opera in late 2012. The new updated version opened at the weekend with a matinée on Hanukkah Sunday. For its high performance and production standards it deserved a larger audience. I’m betting it will get them during the next two weekends.

This 75-minute single act packs plenty into a remarkably well-paced edition that manages to preserve the same qualities in O. Henry’s original short story. As operas go, and despite the frequent complaint by audiences about not being able to understand the sung words, this piece turned out to be easy to track in the intimate Hidden Valley theater. Even my ten-year-old granddaughter saw the surprise ending coming before the singers on stage appeared to catch on.

A slightly elevated thrust stage outlines the apartment of Della (Sara Duchovnay) and Jim (Ryan Bradford), too impecunious on Christmas Eve to buy each other a gift but too much in love not to fail in their already agreed postponement for another year. She, and ‘best friend’ Maggie (Nora Graham-Smith), and Jim and ‘best friend’ Henry (Anders Froelich) privately agonize over the ultimate sacrifices Della and Jim make on behalf of one another. These bits extended and enriched the libretto and gave Conte’s chamber ensemble score for three strings, three winds and piano the opportunity to cleverly flesh it out. If the singing parts remain tonal, Conte’s orchestra must navigate a complex texture of timbres and tricky syncopations, which here were skillfully achieved under conductor William Long. His job, and the orchestra’s, was no easy stroll down John Denver’s West Virginia country roads.

Stage director Laura Anderson’s vision of the piece never lost focus but surely counted on Chris Johnson’s design and the unattributed lighting designer. Of greater significance than may be obvious is the a cappella off-stage chorus that intones the link from this 21st century opera back to the original story of the Three Magi bringing gifts to the newborn Jesus.

If you have outgrown the need to buy Christmas presents that giftees don’t need and can’t use, consider buying them an experience like this one instead.