Monday, May 21, 2012
Opera review: Three Decembers at Scott Theatre in Fort Worth
A cacophony of emotions that's never overwhelming.
American composer Jake Heggie is a national treasure and his 90-minute chamber opera, Three Decembers, provided the perfect modern component to the 2012 Fort Worth Opera Festival (playing at Scott Theatre, with remaining performances on May 26, May 31, and June 2).
The tornado-like story journeys through the turbulent lives of three people: a stage mother who was widowed in her twenties, her daughter who hides her spouse's infidelity and resorts to drinking and a son who doesn't hide his happy union with another man, but receives acceptance from his sister only and rejection from his mother. The whirlwind plot touches down at three points in their lives during Christmas in 1986, 1996, and 2006.
As I sat in the Scott Theatre admiring the sparse set—two rooms connected by a shiny black floor, I felt energy build in the air as the audience waited for the performance to begin. Christopher Larkin conducted the orchestra that opened with an exciting explosion of complex rhythms and delightful dissonances reminiscent of the intricate structures in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The minimalist set designed by Bob Lavallee allowed the focus to remain on the masterfully executed music and drama in much the same way as a plain white matte directs the viewer's eyes onto a fine watercolor painting.
The simplicity theme was carried through in several ways, from the selection of the 500-seat Scott Theatre rather than the 2,000 seat Bass Hall, to the straightforward plot which focused on themes of acceptance and unconditional love. With Mr. Obama's recent statements on his evolving views on gay marriage the emergence of this opera couldn't be better timed to highlight an era of, not tolerance, but acceptance for alternative lifestyles.
The small orchestra of eleven players was located offstage and provided unseen brilliance to support the three powerful singers in the cast. Soprano Janice Hall, who sang the role of the mother Maddy, relayed to me during the reception afterwards that the singers viewed the conductor only through a small monitor. "You adjust and get used to it," she added.
Ms. Hall was one of three well-chosen singers in the small cast whose power came not from huge voices, which they had when needed, but consistently balanced clear accurate singing coupled with convincing acting and portrayal of well-rounded characters. Board member Robert Stephenson stated, "Gone are the days of opera singers standing like wood and singing mechanically correct arias. The modern public demands more than that."
On Saturday, Fort Worth Opera supplied what the public demanded with Three Decembers. The three act opera sped by, taking us through a cacophony of emotions that was not overwhelming even without an intermission because of the gradual crescendo of tension. A lighthearted first act escalated to a third act that had many audience members coughing and choking back tears.
The story begins with a phone conversation in December 1986 between Bea, sung by soprano
Janice Hall Emily Pulley, and her brother Charlie, performed by baritone Matthew Worth.
They discuss their stage mother Maddy's self-serving Christmas letter. Supernumeraries were used for the first time in this production to depict Bea's husband and two children and Charlie's partner, Burt. This addition was effective and added a subtle but not overpowering touch to flesh out the action.
In the letter, Maddy invites them to her new Broadway show. They attend, and after the performance Bea joins her mother in the dressing room where they sing a duet that is humorous and also quite acrobatic for the singers' voices in some sections. The ladies handle the drama and skipping intervals in the music well. Heggie's melodic lines are demanding for any performer but these seasoned performers of modern opera lasso the cavorting melodies with ease and sell it well. The ballads, with gorgeous soothing lines, balance it out. In another phone conversation Charlie sings a ballad as he reads from his four-line-a-day journal which he penned to retain his sanity and commemorate his love for his deceased partner Burt. Matthew Worth's expressive singing as Charlie is heart-breakingly beautiful in vocal and emotional tone.
As the story progressed in the second act to December 1996, the characters' perfect hair and clothes were nicely matched to the decade to the credit of Rondi Hillstrom Davis for costumes and makeup and wig designs by James McGough. The siblings sing a particularly punchy shoe ballad song that helped me feel much better about the rows of shoes in my closet.
The drama moved to San Francisco in the second act where the siblings are on the famous Golden Gate Bridge depicted by a huge swooping beam, iron railings, thick wires, and a blue sky background. The colors, shapes and lines in the faux bridge set were a feast for the artistic eye. A repetitive phrase in the piano, and fog slithering in and creeping towards the audience, marvelously foreshadowed the drama to come and set the mood for the touching duet Bea and Charlie sing as they remember their father lovingly sitting in his chair. He died when they were young and his memory receives all their love and esteem while their absentee stage mother is the recipient of their wrath.
Director Candace Evans brought out the estrangement between the children and their single mother, but also allowed the audience to draw their own conclusions about the mother's choices and attitudes. The lack of the mother's acknowledgment of Charlie's partner was brought out and yet we also saw her anguish as she tried to come to terms with her feelings about how to support her son and his partner who is dying of AIDS.
At the end of the second act their mother reveals the shocking way their alcoholic father actually died, and again, the direction of Ms. Evans gave the audience the choice to sympathize with the mother as she kneels on floor while her children berate her or perhaps identify with her as the Broadway actress picks up her chin and goes to accept her Tony Award sans children at her side. We saw the performer's complicated psychology that put on a face as needed to muddle through tough times but also found it challenging to be human and relate to her family when they needed true mother's love, not her crocodile stage tears.
The final act takes place in December 2006 with Bea and Charlie holding a new perspective of their mother as they speak at her memorial. The mother appears in the background in a flowing white gown and bare feet, ascending and descending a large center stage stairway with almost a bit too distracting stage movement for the frozen solemnity of the funeral. Even as a specter the mother uncannily maintained her stage presence to the end with a flamboyant stage direction to the light at center stage.
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