All unhappy families are more or less alike as Nabokov likes to remind us. Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, although not proving an exception to the aphorism, manages to re-tell it in a poignant score. The one-act opera, loosely based on an original play by Terrance McNally, follows Madeline Mitchell and her two children, Bea and Charlie, through three Decembers spanning three decades of their adult lives—decades that chronicle struggles with sexuality, tragic loss of loved ones to AIDS, and ultimately, a newly forged understanding of each other.
Three Decembers made its East Coast premiere on Friday, October 14th in Boston University’s intimate Lane-Comely Studio 210 after a remarkably short four-week preparation period. The opera was performed as part of the 15th annual fall Fringe Festival, dedicated to chamber-setting performances of shorter works for the BU Opera Institute.
Heggie’s score is a thing of beauty, infused not only with a deep understanding of Gene Scheer’s libretto, but a haunting ability to augment and enhance the events on stage. His sense of tonality produces an almost bel canto vocal line. There are transcendent moments—vast swathes of sentimentally-imbued ensemble work which are as emotionally draining as they are thrilling to witness, and there are also heart-rending lullabies. But Heggie’s work also manages to be sublimely funny at points, not only in its setting and affect, but in its ability to intimate humor out of subtlety (note the rhyming couplets Deb and Charlie use to complain about their mother’s iambic letters, or Madeline’s Broadway solo turned high aria in the second scene of the work).
Friday evening’s performance was powerfully portrayed with sparse simplicity. Scene design by Stephen McGonagle proved remarkably effective: the drama unfolded on an empty thrust stage surrounded on three sides by the audience, with projections of images of lost family members in the background. Originally scored for eleven instruments and piano, Friday evening’s performance utilized a two-piano arrangement behind the stage. Although balance frequently proved an issue with the two open-lid pianos, both Miaomiao Wang and none other than the performance’s music director, Allison Voth, effectively portrayed the substantial score with a subtly enhancing the intimacy of the smaller space.
Friday evening’s cast (affectionately termed the “blond cast” in a post-concert discussion) is certainly of particular note. Jonathan Cole, playing Charlie, although sometimes imprecise on pitch and lacking in clarity, provided a rich and satisfying baritone that resounded in the performance space of Lane-Comely. Cole was frequently paired with soprano Ruth Hartt, playing Bea, who, if I can gush, was simply lovely. Hartt’s warm tone is supple and flexible—beautiful in its own right. She also understands the emotional context in which she is singing. The role of Madeline Mitchell was performed by soprano Vera Savage, who, although a significant contrast to Hartt’s sound, was just as stunning—a radiant and solid sound that brazenly approached even the most challenging moments of Heggie’s score. Subsequent performances of the three day run of the performance will also feature an alternate cast (the so-called “brunette cast”) of Amanda Tarver (Madeline), Sonja Krenek (Bea) and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek (Charlie).
Certainly a satisfying work, Three Decembers ultimately proves an emotionally uncomfortable one to watch. It is difficult peering in on a broken family, especially as we, the audience, understand the significant issues plaguing the characters even before they conceive of them. Ultimately, Three Decembers consoles by reminding us that time may yet provide understanding.
Three Decembers continues through Sunday, October 16th. Fringe continues with Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel later in October and concludes with a performance of Jake Heggie’s art song (Jake Heggie on Jake Heggie) on October 28th.