Chamber opera has become trendy. They are likelier to achieve performances than a full-sized production involving many more singers, perhaps a chorus, and a much larger orchestra, to say nothing of elaborate sets, and costumes for the entire cast. Young and little-known composers may choose this genre to achieve performances. But even highly regarded, successful composers, with full-scale operas ito their credit, may find significant virtues in works of modest size.
Jake Heggie has long since become one of our leading opera composers, starting with his first full-scale opera, Dead Man Walking. He has continued to work in the form, including operas such as Moby Dick and It’s a Wonderful Life. But he has also written quite a few works of more modest size, of which one of the most successful, in terms of the number of productions, is Three Decembers, which opened in a production by the Berkshire Opera Festival at the Pavilion Theater, PS21/Performance Spaces for the 21st Century, in Chatham, New York, on Thursday evening, and repeats Saturday afternoon at 1:00pm.
The production glows with passion for both musical and dramatic values from all concerned.
Three Decembers grew out of a short, unpublished play written by the late Terence McNally (Heggie’s librettist for Dead Man Walking), for an AIDS benefit in 1999. The original title was Some Christmas Letters, dealing with a Broadway star and her grown son and daughter, and their search for ways to overcome the personal challenges between the three of them. After Terence McNally’s death, the libretto was written—expanding on the short original play—by Gene Scheer into a text beautifully designed to be set to music. (We saw Scheer in the house last night.)
The title adopted for the opera indicates that its three sections take place during the month of December ten year apart, 1986, 1996, and 2006. The son, Charlie, is worrying about the health of his partner, who turns out to have AIDS. Charlie’s mother, the actress Madeline Mitchell, has avoided meeting her son’s partner and does not take the trouble to remember his name correctly. The daughter, Bea, too, has a strained relationship with their mother, and makes fun of her mother’s writing style in her Christmas letters. The events of the Christmas seasons of 1986 and 1996 open secrets and misunderstandings among them all, which reach a state of acceptance when Maddy dies in her sleep just after completing her final Christmas letter, and her children, who have learned some things she had not told them before, are able to speak at a memorial service for her in a Broadway theater.
Jake Heggie’s score, in treating a theatrical star, suggests the spirit of the Broadway musical while at the same time it is clearly cast in a modern spirit. The 11-piece orchestra often underlines melodic ideas that could reflect Broadway tunes, though rhythmically and harmonically more intricate and dramatically intense. Christopher James Roy’s excellent conducting underlined and supported the singers’ unfolding of their family squabbles.
It would be hard to imagine a better cast of singers, both for their vocal abilities and their acting. All three of them—Theo Hoffman (Charlie), Monica Dewey (Bea), and Adriana Zabala (Maddy)—had voices exactly matched to their characters, with clear English diction, and all three moved and reacted vividly in the emotional situations of the story. The score gives each of them opportunities for set pieces as well as ensemble numbers. The young people make fun of their mother’s Christmas letter; Maddy sings the final song of her new show; Theo and Bea’s duet “What do you remember about Dad?” poses a central question of their family live. A lullaby that their late father had sung long before plays a role in Maddy’s visit to meet Theo’s partner shortly before his death from AIDS plays an expressive role.
Beth Greenberg’s stage direction brought out these personalities fully and convincingly. Scenic designer Janie E. Howland divided the stage into three spaces, normally one for each character (since, during much of the work, the were conceived as being in different parts of the country): a larger, slightly elevated central space as Maddy’s theater area, and two smaller areas lower, left and right, as living space for the two offspring. Brooke Stanton’s costumes contributed to bringing the characters to life in their various situations, especially the rack of elegant gowns for the Broadway star.
The opera runs a compact 90 minutes without intermission, but it is full of activity, life, tension, and resolution. I am not at all surprised that it has already enjoyed over 30 productions in many places. There will surely be many more, especially if they are all mounted as superbly as this one.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.