Opera Review: Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers Tackles Family Tension Sung Beautifully

After opening on Saturday night at Bass Performance Hall with one grand old favorite opera about a diva—Puccini’s Tosca—Fort Worth Opera’s spring festival moved on to a contemporary one-act chamber opera—also centered around a diva as the main character—Sunday afternoon at Scott Theatre.

In the wake of the triumphant premiere of his Moby Dick in Dallas in 2010, Jake Heggie has moved securely to the forefront of living American opera composers. Area opera fans had previously become acquainted with his work when Fort Worth Opera presented his Dead Man Walking in 2009, and he may certainly be regarded as a favorite in these parts. Now, after the monumental literary vision presented in Moby Dick, and the gripping personalization of the politics of capital punishment in Dead Man Walking, locals can view a touchingly intimate exploration of family dynamics in Three Decembers.

The short play by Terrence McNally, on which Three Decembers is based, was performed in its original form only once—at an AIDS benefit at Carnegie Hall in 1999. Reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s play The Long Christmas Dinner (which was set as a chamber opera by Paul Hindemith), Three Decembers was shaped into a workable operatic libretto by Gene Scheer. In its operatic form, Three Decembers hangs a family saga on Christmas—in this case, three Christmases, ten years apart—and delves into the holiday’s potential for bringing out old grudges, bitter unacknowledged truths, and, yes, love among people who sometimes love each other only because they happen to be closely related. And that, it turns out, is sometimes enough.

Typical of Heggie’s music, the score (for an orchestra of eleven musicians, stationed behind the sets in this production) is immediately engaging and constantly energetic; Heggie fears neither dissonance nor lyricism, and the frequent pungency in his writing gives way to a sheer beauty. Christopher Larkin, one of the leading interpreters of American opera in our time, held the complex score together neatly and expressively. Bob Lavallee’s held the sometimes disjunctive plot together nicely, although in just one instance a noisy scene change jarred the ears and the plotline.

Soprano Janice Hall clearly savors the role of Madeline, the Broadway star mother (part Mama Rose, part Margo Channing) who constantly and unconsciously emotionally gouges her two grown children Charlie (baritone Matthew Worth) and Beatrice (soprano Emily Pulley). Scheer’s script, Heggie’s music, Candace Evans’ directing, and Hall’s superb stage presence help the audience understand and love Madeline even when her children don’t. Heggie is clearly a master of writing naturally for the voice, and of integrating text into a complex musical structure. While the opera is made up of distinctive set pieces (at times it resembles a song cycle structurally), the flow of words and plot is so skillfully crafted that only on leaving the theater is the audience member likely to remember that virtually every word was sung—and always sung beautifully.

It’s fair to note that there’s a lot of Broadway in Three Decembers, particularly in the loveable melodies—and a touch of Cheever in the depiction of the hidden suffering of the affluent. Lots of families experience one or more of the issues this family faces—AIDS, alcoholism, infidelity, single parenting, sexual identity—and even those who don’t are likely to see themselves up on the stage at the moment when the question arises, “Why is it so hard to be human?”

In short, be sure and take a hankie to this one.