Monday, November 24, 2008

Heggie's "Three Decembers" with Frederica von Stade

I don't know what I was expecting, but the reviews were almost uniformly horrible for Heggie’s latest opera – horrible in nearly way: staging, music, libretto, etc. I became somewhat suspicious, however, when I read how Heggie was writing "ungrateful" music that lies "awkwardly" for the voice; and how his score while "threatening to break into melody - never really does." Funny, what I listened to this past Saturday was the complete opposite; vocal writing that was gracious and filled with melody with words sung nearly as naturally as speech. It’s a bit of a “fluffy” score (“fluffy” in a positive way) score - more Broadway musical (think "The Light in the Piazza" or "A Little Night Music") than “standard” operatic. Even more so, it also reminded me (enormously so) of Menotti's early hits - "The Telephone", "The Old Maid and the Thief" and "Amelia Goes to the Ball." In fact, though I don’t recall reading this in a single review of the piece, I felt Menotti's presence throughout the work . Audience response was positive, and strong with audible laughter in all the right places and a hearty applause after each of the "numbers."

Honestly, the score bursts with beautiful melodies that almost belie the sparseness of the orchestration. Composed for 11 instruments – a string quintet, some wind players doubling on instruments, percussion and two pianos (played by conductor, Patrick Summers and composer, Mr. Heggie himself), the show could easily (with the right talent) be mounted virtually anywhere.

So frequently today's composers of operas are criticized for always tackling BIG subjects, yet when a composer tackles a "lighter" (even if only deceptively so) subject such as Heggie’s work on Terrence McNally’s intimate family drama of both laughter and tears, the subject matter is dismissed as "trite" or "sentimental."

The tale it takes place over three Decembers: 1986, 1996 and 2006, and centers around Madeline ("Maddy") an aging actress (von Stade) and the uncomfortable relationship she enjoys with two adult children. There is Charlie, her son, gay and whose lover is dying of complications from AIDS; and daughter Bea, married to a very successful businessman who cheats on her - something Maddy relates to. In '86 the kids meet Maddy as she's in rehearsals for her first Broadway musical. The kids do rattle on a bit much feeling sorry for themselves about how Maddy was an "absentee mom" always on the road. Maddy's defense was she was a young widow and only did what she could to assure there was food on the table and shoes on their feet. She's also keeping a dark secret about the kids' father's death (the children were 7 and 5 at his passing) - whom they always sing well of.

In the second act, the siblings go after mama with such a vengeance that Maddy is practically broadsided by their efforts. Bea, in particular, neither disguises nor let’s up her hostility, provoking her mother to blurt out the ugly truth about their late father, a man they have until now revered as a near saint. Maddy’s coming clean with the truth elicits only anger from both children, each inferring how different their lives would be if Maddy had given them the truth.

Her defense is heartrending “How could I look in your eyes and tell you . . . I had to find a version of life that we could all live with. I did it to protect you.” Von Stade simply shines here and one sees – if only through her own eyes – how she viewed her actions as selfless – as a sacrifice.

In fact, Frederica von Stade sounded absolutely stunning from start to finish. The voice no longer possesses that crisp, gossamer, reedy tone so many of us fell under the spell of decades ago, but nonetheless uniquely stamped with von Stade’s individual stamp. The youthfulness has been replaced by a richness and maturity (without once sounding “old”) that only age – and its wisdom can bring out in a singer. It’s a voice with decidedly more cream than muscle and quite honestly hearing of her desire to do The Marschallin, all I cab say is “go for it, Flicka!” Quite simply, von Stade’s was a tour de force performance, hilarious, touching, vain - it was clearly tailor made for her (but should transfer well) and she did not disappoint.

Keith Phares was touching as Charlie, and his singing at the end of Act I - (with the fog rolling in around them on the Golden Gate Bridge) was particularly beautiful. Kristin Clayton's Bea was lovely, though the character is a difficult one to warm up do: a joyless alcoholic, she finds anyone to blame for life’s one I have a tough time feeling complete sympathy for. That said, she sang with great emotion and entirely believable.

It isn't Elektra. It isn't Butterfly. It sure ain't Norma - but what I heard was a charming, thoughtful work I'd love the chance to see and hear in the theatre. It really is a lovely piece.


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