01 June 2012

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012: Heggie’s ‘Three Decembers’

Matthew Worth (Charlie), Janice Hall (Madeline Mitchell),
and Emily Pulley (Bea).
Illustration by WVM©

Over the years, Fort Worth Opera has devoted a significant focus to smaller, contemporary pieces, with winning results. And while new chamber operas are being written (and perhaps with greater frequency now than ever) and there’s plenty of cachet attached to a world premiere, there’s also great value in returning to recent work by rising or established composers. A second hearing for some will be an entirely new experience for most audiences, and between those parameters we may arrive at new insights and judgments. A case in point: last year’s production of Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox was downright astonishing, and effectively created a consensus that this is among the most important works of the late-20th century.

This year’s Fort Worth Opera Festival features two contemporary works, Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata and Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, the latter of which, an intimate family portrait, is the featured chamber opera this year. Although both these operas were heard first at Houston Grand Opera, Fort Worth is, in a very real sense, making its own, ongoing investment in both composers: Adamo’s Little Women was a highlight of the 2004–05 season, and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking created a sensation at the 2009 Festival.

Heggie’s work has been heard locally in connection with his residency at University of North Texas in 2010–11 and at Dallas Opera, which saw the world premiere of his Moby-Dick in 2010 and will unveil another new opera, Great Scott, in 2015 (with Joyce DiDonato in the lead). So there’s abundant reason to reexamine Heggie’s catalogue and to join in what is becoming a lively conversation here: few communities have the luck to play such an important role in a composer’s career. Certainly New York doesn’t hear him so often as the Metroplex does.

Fort Worth lavished great care on Three Decembers, giving the piece a brilliant production and every chance to make a favorable impression. Certainly many in the audience connected with the emotional themes of the piece, a portrait of a dysfunctional family.

Bea (Pulley) and Charlie (Worth) reminisce
on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Photo by Ellen Appel©
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

Three Decembers concerns Madeline Mitchell, a Broadway star whose pursuit of professional success has wounded both her grown children. Gradually we see that her elder child, Bea, is going through the motions in a basically loveless marriage; apparently, she’s an alcoholic, too, though that possibility is treated most superficially in Gene Scheer’s libretto, based on a play by Terrence McNally. More thoughtful is the treatment of Bea’s brother, Charlie, whose homosexuality — and whose AIDS-stricken lover — Madeline has never quite accepted.

Creating effective showcases for artists he cares about is one of Heggie’s principal artistic goals, it seems to me, and he’s very much succeeded here. He designed the role of Maddy for Frederica Von Stade, with whom he’s enjoyed a long artistic collaboration and a close friendship; last year, Joyce Castle assumed Maddy’s crown in Central City, Colorado; and here in Fort Worth, Janice Hall took the role. Maddy is given ingratiating vocal music (including a show-stopping Broadway number), a sympathetic character, and just enough dramatic heft to earn multiple ovations by the evening’s end.

Janice, who’s enjoyed several noteworthy triumphs in Fort Worth, really rose to the occasion, with smooth yet characterful vocal lines and a powerful physical presence that told you not only that Maddy was a star but also that you’d be a fool to cross her.

Soprano Emily Pulley played Bea in Central City; here, she offered a poignant eagerness, mostly just trying to reach out to her mother and brother yet hesitant and painfully lacking in self-confidence. Baritone Matthew Worth cut a handsome figure onstage and lavished buttery tone on Charlie’s sorrows and frustrations.

Presenting Madeline Mitchell.
Janice Hall, photographed by Ellen Appel©
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

Candace Evans, new to the company, directed with a sure sense of the flow, abetted by Bob Lavalee’s ingenious set designs. Rondi Hillstrom Davis might have done more to accentuate Bea’s character (she dressed too much like her mother, I thought), but she really captured Maddy’s theatricality and Charlie’s desire to be more like other people. Christopher Larkin conducted the chamber ensemble from backstage, and for coordinating the instrumental and vocal forces, he deserves abundant praise.

But there are limits to what a conductor can do to redeem a score, and this is far from Heggie’s best work. While I enjoyed his easy way with melody and his penchant for waltz numbers, I found his orchestrations twinkly, frailer even than the realities of chamber music require, to the point that they undermined the drama onstage.

In truth, there was precious little drama at all. Much of the blame for this lies with McNally and with Scheer, of course. They give us glimpses of the family in 1986, 1996, and 2006, ostensibly around Christmastime, with cards and reunions and observances. The opera’s title is misleading, however, since some scenes take place in other months, notably June for the Tony Awards. Far more serious contrivances emerge almost immediately.

The family is still recovering from the loss of Maddy’s husband, Bea and Charlie’s father, when the children were quite young. Somehow we’re supposed to believe that our protagonists reflect on this loss only on those occasions when we see them, beginning two decades after the father’s death. Thereupon, the characters talk — but do almost nothing. Granted, there are plenty of operas where people merely stand around and sing about their predicament, but those aren’t as intimate as this one: we’re not sitting right next to the singers, and they’re not addressing problems identical to our own.

And with regard to those problems, as they’re addressed here, I respectfully point out that the emotional response of the audience doesn’t suggest that the artistic treatment of is fully dimensional or particularly meaningful. People get choked up over Kodak commercials, too.

The only thing that passes for action in Three Decembers is a terrible confession that Maddy makes, for the simple reason that, if she doesn’t, there’ll be no story. Talk about contrivance! Maddy might have confessed 15 years earlier; she might do it 15 years later; she might hold her tongue altogether. The confession is almost entirely unprovoked and unmotivated, and Heggie doesn’t even do his bit by ratcheting up the tension in the music before Maddy lets fly with the truth. Thereupon all three characters respond to her announcement by talking some more, dooming our hopes that something might actually happen here.

And yet I didn’t hate Three Decembers. I found much to admire in this score, and I believe strongly in the value of reexamining a composer’s work from time to time. This was the first time I’d heard this particular score, and I’m not sorry Fort Worth mounted it. But Heggie, Scheer, and McNally have all proved themselves capable of better work, and such an underdeveloped piece may not deserve all the trouble required — from producers and listeners alike — to score the artistic and emotional points its creators didn’t manage on their own.

Tony Awards-night tensions: Pulley and Hall as Bea and Maddy.
Photo by Ellen Appel©
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

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