Houston — The Houston Grand Opera’s The House Without a Christmas Tree, by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek, opened at the makeshift and aptly named Resilience Theater in the George R. Brown Convention Center on Nov. 30. It is Hallmark Christmas card of an opera, as wholesome and wry as a Norman Rockwell painting and as heartwarming as a living crèche school pageant (which actually occurs near the end of the short 80-minute one-act opera.)
The Houston Grand Opera is in the midst of a multiyear project to produce a Christmas-oriented opera to match ballet’s perennial The Nutcracker and theater’s A Christmas Carol. Of course, there is always Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was considered too sugary during the 12-tone modernist era of the supremacy of the Tower of Babbitt.
Thankfully, we have returned to our tonal sense in all three entries. The first was Iain Bell and Simon Callow’s opera of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which premiered in 2014. In 2015, HGO revived Rachel Portman and Nicholas Wright's The Little Prince and last year Jake Heggie/Gene Scheer delivered a superb operatic rendition of Frank Capra’s film, It’s a Wonderful Life (reviewed here.)
THWCT (The House without a Christmas Tree) is based on Gail Rock's TV movie (1972) and subsequent book, whose origin, according to the program notes, was due to a mouse. Apparently, Rock and a friend rented a vacation house that had a mouse in it and they fled to the city. While at a friend’s house, she related this story about her youth when her recalcitrant father refused to have a Christmas tree because it reminded him of his death of her mother. One of their hosts wrote for television, loved the story, and the rest is history. (There is a certain irony in this considering that mice have a role in The Nutcracker.)
The story revolves around teenaged Addie, marvelously portrayed by soprano Lauren Snouffer with just the right combination of girl and woman. She lives with her widowed father, played with unrelenting gruffness (until the very end) by baritone Daniel Belcher. They live in his mother’s house, played by soprano Patricia Schuman with lots of love and maybe too much patience for her emotionally crippled son.
The opera opens with the adult Addie, who now goes by Adelaide, walking down the wintry street in New York City. She sees a store window with a snowy, small-town scene and it sends her down memory lane to her small-town roots and us into the opera.
The conflict is between Addie, who decides that this is the year to demand a Christmas tree (teenager, you know). Dad, once again, refuses. It turns out that his wife died at Christmas shortly after Addie’s birth and his last happy memory is decorating the tree. The pain of this memory ended the tradition for him—and everyone else in the household for that matter.
When Addie wins a tree at school and drags it home, it ruptures his relationship with both his daughter and mother in the process. When Addie sneaks out of the house and takes the tree to the house of Gloria, a destitute friend, Dad sees the error of his ways and brings a forest-sized evergreen into the living room. And they all lived happily decorated ever after, we suppose.
There is a secondary plot of a budding romance at school with Billy, sung with an appropriate chip on his shoulder by the youngster Maximillian Macias. Of course, there is a best friend, sung with charm by Megan Mikailovna Samarin.
Heidi Stober, who was excellent as Cleopatra in HGO’s recent Julius Caesar, plays three roles. First, she is the adult Addie, next she is the schoolteacher and lastly she is a ghostly appearance of the departed wife ex machina. If you didn’t notice her triple casting in the program, you would never of noticed because her three characterizations were so distinctly portrayed.
Vavrek’s libretto hits just the right tone, combining small-town life and the 1950’s milieu. Each of the characters are keenly drawn, although there is much left unsaid, such as why Addie is just finding out why Dad doesn't want a tree now. Surely this has been discussed much earlier in their lives.
It is very difficult to describe Gordon’s musical voice. Gordon is a classically trained composer who was raised in the theater. His mother, Eve Gordon, was a singer and comic on the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills. This influence on his musical voice is unmistakable, yet not dominant. His style is like a perfectly blended sauce that he pours over words. The ingredients are present but impossible to differentiate. He is not a composer of soaring melodies. Although this opera invents a jaunty new Christmas carol and a lovely waltz, he doesn’t produce an earworm. Yet the music is melodic in a useful way. Addie’s part is unusually high, which she easily negotiates, but will not be as effective with a more mature operatic style voice in the role.
Gordon’s songs, as well as his operas, all ride over a complex and cleverly composed accompaniment, as does this opera. It could exist as a separate Christmas Symphony, telling the story as affectedly as on stage. What this means is Gordon’s conundrum. Each of the characters lacks a signature or distinctive melodic style, but their music perfectly fits what they are saying at any particular time. When the stage and the small chamber-sized orchestra, ably conducted by Bradley Moore, are combined, THWCT becomes a unified whole. Gordon tells the story without a hint of maudlin sentimentality or overburdening the opera with religiosity.
Director James Robinson delivers a natural feel to the stage action. Set designer works a set-change miracle with his revolving house and costume designer James Schuette captures the dress of the era. Sound designer’s microphones are a requirement of the poor acoustics of the temporary theater, stuck in the back of a convention center. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting makes the most of the make-shift set-up. Karen Reeves’ juvenile chorus is terrific.
THWCT should have holiday legs. Opera houses will love its accessibility and brevity. Its hybrid musical language should also make it attractive to theater companies and even for exceptional high school programs. It is also universally attractive because of its variety of roles for both adults and juveniles as well as the small orchestral forces required. And, knowing Gordon’s style, it would probably work well with only piano accompaniment.
We will see.