Growing up is difficult. The dichotomy of being a parent while being a distinct identity invariably leads to friction between members—though in the end, you realize that while you don't always like your family, don't always understand their choices or reasons, you do love them.
Three Decembers, presented by Fort Worth Opera, tells the story of Madeline (sung by soprano Janice Hall) and her two children, Bea (soprano Emily Pulley) and Charlie (baritone Matthew Worth). The story, based on an original play by Terrence McNally (opera libretto by Gene Scheer) follows the trio during the Decembers of 1986, 1996 and 2006, and chronicles how they support (or fail to support) each other during the highs and lows of each's life.
Composer Jake Heggie's opera provides a change to the grand spectacle seen on stage during the 2012 Fort Worth Opera Festival. Instead of sweeping gestures, mass crowds, and towering sets, Heggie's work is more about the inherent simplicity and small movements to reinforce the story.
The music of the opera is amazing. The material is intensely lyrical, supporting the text while also creating stunning melodies in both the voices. At no time does the music stray from supporting the dramatic action; Heggie eschews some operatic conventions to the benefit of the piece as a whole—much of the difficulty is not just in singing the musical line, but presenting it in a sincere and emotional manner. There never is a moment where it feels like Heggie wrote for the sake of the singer; it always is for the story.
In addition, his skills as an orchestrator are beyond reproach, and provide poignant reinforcement to the stage action; setting the orchestra not only as an able accompanist, but adds further dimension to the work. It is an exciting thought that there are musicians such as the composer contributing to the modern operatic canon; while other composers strive to emulate the big names of the genre, Heggie speaks with his own unique voice.
The production, directed by Candace Evans and conducted by Christopher Larkin, highlights the sincerity in the work, but it never crosses the line into simplistic tone. The staged action mostly takes place in three vignettes when the characters are apart, but there is a blurring in the staging; while the characters are in separate areas, the action suggests a link (whether it is emotional or spiritual) that permanently connects the characters.
Rondi Hillstrom Davis designed the costumes, primarily using solid, vibrant colors that stand out against the black of the set. The lighting design by Lisa Miller is simple but effective, though there are moments where she uses the reflective nature of the set to dazzling effect, projecting shadows and reflections around the space.
The set, designed by Bob Lavallee, is on first glance underwhelming. The main focus is a center wall covered with black reflective material (that also extends on the stage flooring to the front of the thrust). At various points panels slide away, giving more depth to a particular vignette; there is also a scene where a staircase extends down for a character's dramatic exit. The problem lies in the execution: when everything is in place, the wall looked poorly constructed, as if the pieces didn't quite fit together. Realistically, this has as much to do with the setting of the pieces as well as their design, but takes a bit away from the visual aspect of the performance.
The three singers are wonderful in their own rights. Janice Hall takes to the persona of the theater star Madeline with grace, never coming across as a caricature of the Joan Crawford-esque stereotype. There is an underlying vulnerability to Madeline, and Hall grabs onto this facet, driving it home and keeps the character sympathetic—in the end, she is the mother many of us had, whether we realized it or not.
Emily Pulley shines in the role of Bea, the eldest child and closer of the two siblings to Madeline. Pulley's voice is wonderful in showing the wide range of the character from the angry, betrayed daughter to the comforting elder sister. At no point is she overbearing or out of balance with the other two singers, and during the few times where the three sing together it is Pulley providing the unifying force.
The role of Charlie is, far and away, the most difficult of the three, dramatically. Portrayed expertly by Matthew Worth, Charlie is a gay man in the heart of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s (his partner has contracted HIV and is slowly dying), and he feels alienated from Madeline because she refuses to acknowledge his partner (or, it's implied, his homosexuality). Worth has an amazingly smooth texture in his singing voice, which is matched with his solid acting skills. Charlie has the greatest growth of all the characters, and Worth navigates the minefield that is Charlie easily and with solid aplomb.
Three Decembers provides a nice counterpoint to the larger productions of the Fort Worth festival and continues the streak of hits that the company produces on a smaller stage. It's worth checking out this production not only for three fantastic performances, but also to hear a living, breathing work of art that can stand on its own with an original voice.
◊ Three Decembers runs in repertory with three other productions: Verdi's Tosca, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Mark Adamo's Lysistrata. The remainder of the Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012 performances are:
Saturday, May 19, 7:30 p.m.: The Marriage of Figaro at Bass Hall OUR REVIEW
Sunday, May 20, 2 p.m. Tosca at Bass Hall OUR REVIEW
Sunday, May 20, 7:30 p.m. Three Decembers at Scott Theatre
Friday, May 25, 7:30 p.m. Tosca at Bass Hall
Saturday, May 26, 2 p.m. Three Decembers at Scott Theatre
Saturday, May 26, 7:30 p.m. Lysistrata at Bass Hall
Sunday, May 27, 2 p.m. The Marriage of Figaro at Bass Hall
Thursday, May 31, 7:30 p.m. Three Decembers at Scott Theatre
Friday, June 1, 7:30 p.m. The Marriage of Figaro at Bass Hall
Saturday, June 2, 2 p.m. Three Decembers at Scott Theatre
Saturday, June 2, 7:30 p.m. Tosca at Bass Hall
Sunday, June 3, 2 p.m. Lysistrata at Bass Hall