Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Three Decembers is the first Skylark Opera Theatre production I have found my way to since that rebranding. It is a beautiful and deeply moving work, and it fits perfectly with the company's new focus. The score is performed by two pianos, positioned visibly onstage behind the actions of the opera's three characters. The extremely spare set comprises a pair of standing screens, a table, and several straight-backed chairs. The focus is steadfastly on the music, which is glorious, and the language–with a libretto that is literate, crisply delivered, and beautifully reveals its three characters' feelings, and their reactions to one another.
The opera covers twenty years in the lives of a mother and fabulous Broadway star, Madeline Mitchell, and her two grown children, Beatrice and Charlie. Years are marked off by the Decembers of 1986, 1996 and 2006, with a reading of Madeline's annual holiday letter to her loved ones a point of entry. Since their father's death when Bea was seven and Charlie five, Madeline has been a single parent. A career that required evening performances and being away on tour, as well as her personal focus on life in the theater above all else, left the children to grow up with a sense of abandonment.
In December 1986, Bea is twenty-eight, married with two children, and lives in Hartford. Charlie is twenty-six and lives in San Francisco with his partner Burt, who has been stricken with AIDS. There is a chilliness between Charlie and their mother. Charlie feels that she has never accepted him being gay and has definitely not accepted Burt as part of his life. Bea has a more active relationship with their mother, though it is strained by Bea's advocacy for her brother and Madeline's subtle zingers aimed at her daughter. The next two Decembers cover Charlie's heartbreak when he loses Burt to the disease, Madeline's nomination for a Tony Award and her desire to include her two children in what she blithely refers to as "My Night," revelations about the father Bea and Charlie never knew, indications that Bea's advocacy for Charlie may be masking her own troubles and, finally, Charlie and Bea speaking to gathered family, friends and fans at a memorial service for their mother.
The focus on music is realized with a breathtaking score by Jake Heggie, whose Dead Man Walking was a major success in Minnesota Opera's 2017-2018 season. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer were commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera to create a piece based on a short play written by the late Terrence McNally in 1999 for an AIDS fundraising event. Three Decembers had its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera in 2008 and is now being mounted for the first time in Minnesota. Originally scored for ten instruments, its reduction to paired pianos works beautifully, especially given the excellent musicianship of pianists Carson Rose Schneider (who serves as music director) and Eric McEnaney. With at most three performers on stage–and often just two or one–the music surrounds the text with a crystalline, elegant presence but never overpowers the words.
The words are sung by Norah Long as Madeline, Anthony Potts as Charlie, and Siena Forest as Bea, and all three are magnificent. The role is written for a contra-soprano voice and Long obliges brilliantly, her lush voice not only providing beautiful, rounded musical tones, but also animating Madeline's character, her selfish instincts, defensiveness should anyone find fault with her, her weariness with her children casting blame upon her, and a remarkable incandescence she turns on when facing her true love, an adoring audience–her heightened expression at first seems artificial, an actor "hamming it up," but no, stay with her and it is apparent that in the warm glow of performance she transcends this life and enters an elated consciousness that her children could not provide for her.
Anthony Potts brings a warm, deeply felt baritone to the role of Charlie, holding back none of his pain when he suffers the loss of his life-partner, and brings the audience wholly into the orbit of his grief. But it is hardly a one-note performance, as he expresses anger toward his mother with dignity and becomes giddily silly when cavorting with Bea. Siena Forest provides a beautiful soprano voice as Beatrice, conveying her resentment toward her mother, her tenderness toward her brother, and an underlying unease about her own life. The three voices blend, whether in pairs or all three together, with superbly blended harmony.
Gary Briggle, outgoing artistic director of Skylark Opera Theatre, serves as stage director. By his own admission in the program notes, he has made the wise decision to place his trust in his colleagues. Kathy Kohl has devised a wonderful array of costumes, simple change-offs for Charlie and Beatrice and an assortment of chic ensembles for Madeline, including the various necklaces, bracelets and earrings that adorn her. Karin Olson does fine work as designer of the lighting, in sync with the emotional swells of the characters' lives.
While the music and the language are sublime, the narrative is a tad wobbly, with plot holes that make it feel less than fully authentic. We know nothing about Charlie or Bea other than the role of embittered children of a flamboyantly absent mother and a missing father. Because of that, it seems as if their parents' shadows have an outsize influence on them into adulthood. Did they not seek out therapy? Bea has two children of her own, but we hear nothing about them, nor–for all the harping about Madeline's poor track record as a mother–is a word said about how she does as a grandmother. She doesn't show a shred of interest in them. As their mother, one would expect this to be as large a bone of contention for Bea as her brother's plight. While the depiction of dysfunction coursing through this family is palpable–largely due to the confluence of music, text and performances–at the end there is a feeling that we have not been given the whole story.
Of course, these are elements that might have been worked into a full-length play, had McNally chosen to develop his short piece, originally called Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls) into a longer work. But that was not his choice. Opera, by its nature, very often asks the audience to suspend its disbelief. In that context we can give Three Decembers a pass.
There are many exquisitely beautiful moments that in themselves are chillingly authentic: the way Charlie clutches his dead lover's sweater then expels as if it were burning up his hands; or the look on Bea's face when she hesitates, working out what to say to Charlie when he asks her, over the phone, to visit him in San Francisco (she settles on a flaccid "I'll try"). Then there is an interlude during which mournful music provides a backdrop for Charlie, Bea and Madeline, each standing in their distant separate spaces, expressing grief without words, merely with their faces cycling from anguish to wistfulness to regret to sorrow. It is raw, moving and achingly authentic.
On the balance, without question, Three Decembers warrants your attention. See it if you love beautiful music that expresses a full range of emotions, sung by three actors with sublime vocal abilities, presenting a story that, even with some missing pieces, bears commonalty with the flaws that beset a good many families, staged with keen sensitivity. Lovely, lovely work.
Three Decembers, a production of Skylark Opera Theatre, runs through May 21, 2013, at Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $55. For tickets and information, please visit www.skylarkopera.org/.
Music: Jake Heggie; Libretto: Gene Scheer, based on an original play by Terrence McNally; Stage Director: Gary Briggle; Music Director: Carson Rose Schneider; Props and Furniture: John Novak; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Stage Manager: Joelle Coutu
Cast: Siena Forest (Beatrice), Norah Long (Madeline Mitchell), Anthony Potts (Charlie).
Pianists: Eric McEnaney and Carson Rose Schneider