Jake Heggie: Three Decembers
Frederica von Stade (Madeline Mitchell), Keith Phares (Charlie), Kristin Clayton (Beatrice), Members of the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Patrick Summers (conductor), Leonard Foglia (Director/Designer), Cesar Galindo (Costume Designer), Brian Nason (Lighting Designer)
Public World Premiere Recording, Houston, Wortham Center (February-March 2008) – 87’37
2 CDs ALBANY RECORDS Ref. # TROY 1073/74 – Booklet in English with complete libretto
Houston Grand Opera (HGO) has an esteemed history of commissioning new works, most of which have entered the repertoire of numerous international opera houses. Commissioned in association with San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances, Three Decembers, a chamber opera by Jake Heggie, is the company’s 38th world premiere, and is imbued with various connections running through the composer’s staggering ascent as an opera composer. Three Decembers shares with Heggie’s first opera, Dead Man Walking the involvement of playwright Terence McNally. McNally fashioned the libretto for Dead Man Walking himself, and Heggie turned to songwriter and lyricist Gene Scheer to create the libretto of Three Decembers from McNally’s short play Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls), which McNally had written for an AIDS benefit in 1999. Further, the composer’s second opera, The End of the Affair, was also commissioned and premiered by HGO in 2004. To avoid confusion, it should be noted that Three Decembers was premiered in Houston under the title Last Acts.
The opera is essentially action-less, with a conversational libretto composed of letters and phone calls between the three characters: Madeline Mitchell (“Maddy”) and her children Charlie and Beatrice (“Bea”). Each character is dealing with personal issues ranging from the untimely suicide of Maddy’s husband and her attempts to keep it a secret from her children to Charlie’s feelings of rejection by his mother and struggles with his partner’s suffering and death from AIDS to Bea’s fall into alcoholism. These are all heady issues, and one must accept the fact that none of them is going to be dealt with in the depth that each deserves. The libretto is far too short and simple for that.
The title of the opera refers to the conversations taking place in the eponymous month, three decades separated (1986, 1996 and 2006). The libretto is cleverly conceived, although at times feels a bit contrived in its frequent ploy of constructing the conversations to allow the composer the opportunity to created duets and trios. Interestingly, these moments often lead to the best music in the opera, but the text tends to sound awkward. Overall, however, the libretto is powerful and the various plotlines’ directions are wonderfully skewed, some resolving neatly mid-opera or at the end, and some becoming even more complex as the drama unfolds. In the end, we are left with a touching balance of resolution and conflict. The libretto’s sprinkling of expletives is a bit unbalanced. For instance, it seems odd that at some points Beatrice uses an expletive to express frustration and at another she resorts to an archaic “Boy Howdy!”
Musically, conductor Patrick Summers describes Heggie in the liner notes as “a melodist of sweep and depth” and a composer of music of “deceptively intricate intelligence.” Heggie’s music is direct and listener-friendly, and his vocal writing is flattering and sometimes quite beautiful. I find the music most powerful in the duets and trios, notably at the end of the opera where the children’s duet on their father’s suicide is at first merely commented on by Maddy, until all three coalesce to sing the key line in the opera: “All in all, isn’t life simply grand? I’m so awfully glad I showed up for it.”
In general, Heggie effectively deploys the oddly conceived instrumental ensemble: two pianos (one played by Heggie, the other by Summers), three woodwind players (oboe/cor anglais, clarinet and one multi-reed player), a string quintet (three violins, cello and bass), and percussion. Chamber operas of this sort invariably draw comparison with the originator of the genre, Benjamin Britten, who was so extremely adept at drawing extremely interesting colors from a small ensemble. Heggie at times doesn’t seem content with the intimacy of his chosen ensemble, composing quasi-orchestral tuttis where the two pianos attempt to make up for the missing bulk of a full orchestra. Stylistically, the work comes much closer to a Broadway show and loses a purely operatic sound. The ensemble’s constituents, and especially the percussion writing (drawn mostly from instruments one would find in a drum set—an abundance of tom-tom, suspended cymbal and bass drum), mimic a scaled-down Broadway instrumentation, and this influence is further felt when Maddy sings, in Act I, an imagined “number from a new Broadway show I’m in.” Heggie doesn’t choose to differentiate much between this “Broadway number” and the musical language used for the rest of the opera, even though the libretto at this point clearly breaks into an imitation of 60s-era Broadway lyrics.
Whatever qualms one might have with the libretto or musical rhetoric, Three Decembers is, without a doubt, masterfully performed. The casting of Frederica von Stade immediately catches one’s attention. Von Stade has a long association with HGO, first appearing with the company as Cherubino in 1973 and continuing to appear in all of her signature rules throughout the 70s and early 80s.
Interestingly, the most complex role is not Maddy but Charlie, and Keith Phares’ powerful baritone is a wonderful complement to von Stade. The role is demanding in its emotional range and Phares’ voice shifts between outrage and tenderness with stunning ease. His extended aria that opens Part II, where he sings of writing his now-dead partner Burt “four little lines” each day, seems destined to become a staple baritone aria, and singers tackling it will forever be trying to live up to its original singer. Phares is clearly a name to watch.
Von Stade delivers beautifully. It is particularly notable how her voice changes as the opera progresses. She initially projects a brazen leading lady, but her voice noticeably becomes fragile and uneasy when she slips up to Beatrice late in Part I hinting at the truth of her husband’s suicide. In Part II, her superficial strength is further broken down in an initial quarrel with Beatrice and, later, she reemerges as a changed woman, truly making an effort to accept her son’s lifestyle and finally revealing her husband’s suicide to her children. Throughout this scene, von Stade projects an amazing change in her voice, gradually becoming more and more desperate sounding as she reaches a catharsis in her confessions. In Part III, where she sings with her children from beyond the grave, her voice reaches a final stage in its evolution as a tender, pure sound.
Kristin Clayton portrays Beatrice effectively as well. Her character seems a crux around which Charlie and Maddy evolve. Her extended aria at the end of Part II exposes a woman unhinged, desperate, and confused by what is going on around her, and here Clayton is powerfully moving. In the remainder of the opera she is relatively balanced and construes her role of mediator between Charlie and Maddy perfectly. Initially, her character at times seems overshadowed by her mother and brother, and this perhaps leads to her performance being less immediately memorable.
The recorded sound is very good. In the production, the instrumentalists were positioned on-stage behind the singers, which, combined with the reduced instrumental forces, allows the singers to be easily heard at all times. The attractive packaging includes a full libretto in English and short essays by Summers, Heggie and Scheer.
The initial run of performances was somewhat lambasted by critics, and it is interesting to revisit the opera on recording. The premiere was overwhelmingly touted as a huge “event” in the opera world, and expectations ran exceedingly high. People expected a monumental utterance and instead got an intimate, heart-on-sleeve story about a dysfunctional family. Some critics asserted that the musical language was overly simple and sappy, but this just seems the appropriate musical response to the libretto. Heggie is clearly of the opinion that the music of the opera should first and foremost amplify the libretto, and, from this standpoint, he is successful. The text is direct and sentimental, and the music aptly follows suit. No, this is not a groundbreaking opus in the history of opera (and certainly was not meant as such), but it is approachable music, lovingly realized by all performers involved.