Three Decembers is a chamber opera by Jake Heggie, a composer
still best known for his opera Dead Man Walking. Dead Man Walking
which had a libretto by the playwright, Terence McNally. This
new opera uses a libretto by Gene Scheer based on one of McNally’s
The play in question,
Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls),
is a short three-hander which McNally wrote for an AIDs benefit
in 1999. The operatic role of Madeleine Mitchell was written
with Frederica von Stade very much in mind. The work was premiered
by Houston Grand Opera in December 2007 and has since gone on
to have quite a life in American opera houses.
is compact - just two Acts and a short Epilogue - each taking
place in a different decade. The opera opens in 1986, Beatrice
(Kristin Clayton) and Charlie (Keith Phares) are on the phone
discussing their mother’s Christmas letter. Their mother is
the famous actress, Madeleine Mitchell (Frederica von Stade)
and she is, as usual, away working. This first act explores
the relationship between the three of them. The two adult children
constantly come back to the thoughts of their absent father,
who died in an accident when they were young. Their mother is
self-absorbed and randomly negligent of relations. In particular
she seems to be unable to accept Charlie’s (male) partner Burt,
who is ill with AIDs.
The second Act takes
place ten years later, after Burt’s funeral. It becomes apparent
that there has been some sort of rapprochement and Madeleine
had accepted Burt. But it remains unclear whether this was genuine
or whether Madeleine had accepted her daughter’s advice - proffered
in the first act - to fake it if she couldn’t be genuine. Relations
between the three remain tense, and Madeleine is apparently
unable to understand why her daughter should be grieving over
Burt’s death. Finally, matters blow up and Madeleine admits
that their father’s accident was an invention: in reality their
father had problems with alcohol and drugs and committed suicide.
The Epilogue is
a short piece which covers Madeleine’s memorial service and
the work ends with the dead Madeleine singing in an ensemble
with her children.
The piece deals
with some pretty tough issues, notably AIDs and the way families
deal with secrets. But as the work is based on a Terence McNally
play, these issues are dealt with using a great deal of sentimentality.
This is reinforced by the melodic nature of Heggie’s music.
When the work opens,
the overture sounds as if it could be from a musical, and throughout
there are teasing pointers in this direction, along with references
to music theatre composers like Kurt Weill. But, when called
upon to write a real show-tune for Madeleine, Heggie fails to
do so. During Act I, we see Madeleine’s act in Barbados and
she sings a song from the new musical in which she is appearing.
For this Heggie delivers an interesting aria, but one which
would probably have been stronger if it had come out as a full
There are a number
of hummable melodies in the opera, but often these occur in
the more complex areas of the plot. Frankly I would have liked
a little more acid, both in the music and in the delivery, so
as to balance the sweetness. Heggie and Scheer deal with the
Big Issues, but never quite manage to dig deep enough for me.
As Madeleine Mitchell,
Frederica von Stade is undoubtedly charismatic and sings Heggie’s
music beautifully. But I kept wondering what the role would
sound like if performed by a singing actress, rather than a
singer who can act; someone like Elaine Stritch or Julia Mackenzie
came to mind. If Madeleine Mitchell was played by one of the
Golden Girls then she ought to be played by Bea Arthur’s acid-tongued
Dorothy or Betty White’s self-absorbed, man-eating Blanche;
but on this disc she seems to be played by Rue McClanahan’s
Keith Phares and
Kristin Clayton do sterling work as Charlie and Beatrice. There
is a lot of conversation in the opera. Phares, Clayton and von
Stade make it work naturally, so that the dialogue flows and
the big numbers arise out of it. Though that doesn't disguise
that the libretto seems to have a lot of words to get through.
There is a big draw-back
when listening on disc. Though von Stade is a mezzo-soprano,
she was always quite a light one, and Clayton has a rather similar
vibrato laden voice so that the two sound rather too similar.
On my first listen-through, without looking at the libretto,
I found that I got the two confused. The piece would work far
better on disc if Clayton had had a more focused, less vibrato-laden,
The singers are
accompanied by an eleven-piece ensemble drawn from the Houston
Grand Opera Orchestra, with pianos played by Patrick Summers
and Jake Heggie. They play Heggie’s music with a will and accompany
in a convincing and appropriate manner.
The CD booklet includes
a complete libretto, which you may well need as the diction
is decent without being superb, plus some production photos
and a number of interesting essays from Patrick Summers, Jake
Heggie and Gene Scheers.
This was an opera
that I wanted to like better, but just couldn’t, no matter how
hard I tried. It is tuneful and accessible and is here given in
a committed performance. However, both music and performance would
have benefited from a little more grit.