REVIEW: Three Decembers (Chicago Opera Theater)

Fredericka von Stade soars above score’s weaknesses

    

COT-three-decembers012

   
Chicago Opera Theater presents
   
Three Decembers
  
Jake Heggie, Composer; Gene Scheer, Librettist
Based on a short play by
Terrence McNally
at
Harris Theater, Millennium Park (map)
through May 16th  | tickets$30-$120  | more info

Review by Mark D. Ball

Criticism comes easy. Composition does not. In fact, this opera’s composer, Jake Heggie, colorfully writes in his program notes that sometimes he has to “[smash his] head…on a keyboard to get any notes out at all”. So, with due respect to the difficulty and nobility of the enterprise, and to those who passionately answer the call anyway, I’m going to offer what is probably a minority opinion among critics and opera-lovers alike in questioning the outcome in the case of Heggie’s opera Three Decembers.

COT-three-decembers003 Librettist Gene Scheer based the story on a short play by Terrence McNally. An adult brother and sister (Charlie and Bea) are struggling with their relationship with their mother (Madeline), a famous actress who neglected them to advance her career. Eventually, the mother reveals a surprising family secret that clarifies her behavior and makes forgiveness possible. Unfortunately, as a portrayal of family dysfunction, the story is simplistic and trite. Despite its aspiration to depict a fascinating but fractured family in the manner of Tennessee Williams, the libretto is largely an exercise in resentful adolescent whining.

Nevertheless, this production did have some strengths. First, the legendary mezzo-soprano Fredericka von Stade sang the role of the celebrated actress and indifferent mother. Her blithe, graceful singing testified to her status as one of the world’s great lyric sopranos. Stade’s Madeline was both selfish and charming, a result of skillful acting that wove flamboyance and naivete into a single fabric. There was no dissimulation in her character – just obliviousness. Hers was a classic diva whose narcissism was almost benign, being tempered by a dormant conscience.

Matthew Worth sang the role of Madeline’s gay son, Charlie. His character’s indignation and stubbornness were explicit, and I heard the ring of sincerity in the fear that Charlie felt during his partner’s illness and the sadness after his death. Because Worth didn’t hyperbolize the affectivity in his role – and despite the driving petulance written into his lines – he delivered some touching moments.

In the role of Bea, Sara Jakubiak did what she could with bad material. Her good singing notwithstanding, she couldn’t overcome the banality of her character.

COT-three-decembers005 COT-three-decembers011
COT-three-decembers009 COT-three-decembers006 COT-three-decembers008

Reaction depends on expectation. Not having heard Three Decembers before, but being aware of Heggie’s postmodernist tendencies, I didn’t go to the performance expecting Puccini. Rather, I was looking forward to interesting musical surprises, perhaps dissonance, fragmentation, or structural disunity, while hoping for enough neoromanticism to give some meaning to those surprises.

The tonality of the score would probably please Puccini after all, but the totality might appeal more to Janáček . Within the strong dissonances of Heggie’s music there are passages of long, lithe melodies with pleasant lyricism, especially in the duets and trios. Sophisticated harmony is present, along with tantalizing unpredictability. Even so, however, most of the vocal lines give the impression of confused and aimless arioso. Whether musicologists ultimately classify it as such, or as Sprechstimme or recitative, the music feels arbitrary and unstable, as though trying hard not to be hummable just so it can claim originality. Furthermore, the frequent screeching of dissonant woodwinds made me wince. What wasn’t boring was downright irritating.

Three Decembers could be a compelling opera if the story were fresher and the music shaped by what Heggie’s modernist/premodernist predecessors (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bernstein, and others) understood about antagonism and synergism as they apply to convention and innovation. As it is, Heggie’s score assaults or frustrates the senses more often than it uses them to frame an emotion or an idea. Disappointment wasn’t among my expectations as the curtain rose, but, I regret to say, it was my reaction as the curtain fell.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  
COT-three-decembers004 Production Team

Conductor:
Stephen Hargreaves
Production by:
Leonard Foglia
Costume Designer:
Cesar Galdino
Original Lighting Designer:
Brian Nason
Lighting Designer:
Keith Parham

Cast List

Bea:
Sara Jakubiak
Madeline:
Frederica von Stade
Charlie:
Matthew Worth

    

   

Theater Thursday: The Ghost Sonata at Oracle Theatre

Thursday, May 20

The Ghost Sonata by August Strindberg 

Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway, Chicago

 

ghostsonataJoin Oracle for wine and appetizers before the show and a post-show discussion on the direction of Oracle’s 2010-2011 season. Max Truax follows up his Oracle directorial debut – 2008’s stunning conceptual Termen Vox Machina – with an elegant, haunting interpretation of Strindberg’s classic chamber play. This mesmerizing and complex narrative portrays a world where two families are imprisoned in their legacy of greed, duplicity and manipulation. Truax’s vision highlights the play’s depiction of the destructive force of truth. There are things in life much more frightening than death.

Event begins at 6:30 p.m.  Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY $25 – For reservations visit http://oracletheatre.org/Tickets.htm