Thursday, July 12, 2018

Opera Maine's Memorable Three Decembers

Just returned from OperaMaine's production of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's chamber opera, "Three Decembers." As I wrote ten years ago of the broadcast premiere of the 2008 revision, the negative reviews of that event made little sense to me:

". . . ungrateful music that lies awkwardly" for the voice” . . . “a score that while threatening to break into melody - never really does."

The music sits in the "sweet spot" for many singers, so “ungrateful” and "awkward" seems odd word choices to describe it. As to melody(ies), the score is virtually bursting with so many lending more of a musical theatre feel to it than an opera. There are (intentional or not) moments that, while not derivative, recall Menotti's early efforts, Bernstein and Sondheim. This is a good thing.

As with the Houston premiere, Portland’ audience was engaged and responsive throughout.

Scheer’s libretto – drawn from an unpublished play, tells the story of a mother and her difficult relationship with her two adult children from 1986 through 2006. A daughter, trapped in a miserable marriage she’s emotionally unequipped to exit; and a gay son, whose partner is dying from complications from AIDS. While these three wrestle with enormous emotions and guilt, there is never any doubt of the love that exists between them, and that they yearn for throughout those years. What on paper sounds like a Lifetime movie, onstage transforms into a compelling, powerful and sometimes funny tale.

Set in intimacy of the St. Lawrence Arts Center, John Sundling's bare bones production – a few props and enormous marquee-style lit up numerals: "1986" "1996" and "2006" identifying and effectively shrinking the stage each scene was a terrific effect, pulling the audience right into the performance. There were moments I couldn’t help thinking of Sondheim’s “Follies.” Likewise, Richard Gammon's direction elicited direct, no-nonsense acting from his cast that breathed theatrical life into this small, high strung and emotionally damaged family making them, for 90 some minutes, real in every sense. It didn’t hurt that Gammon was blessed with a cast that made absolute magic with Heggie’s Broadway-esque score.

As acclaimed actress, Madeline Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis gave a genuine, larger-than-life tour-de-force, her beautiful, expressive face lighting up with stage smiles belying the frightened, hard-as-nails mother, desperate for attention and torn apart by hiding a damaging secret from her children throughout their lives. Vocally, Bryce-Davis has a rich, warm, expressive voice, even throughout all registers top-to-bottom. This is a beautiful singer well on her way to an international career. (Note: following this run, Ms. Bryce-Davis jets back to Antwerp where she is a member of the Opera Vlaanderen, for role debuts in Glass's "Satyagraha" and Eboli in "Don Carlos"). She's also one hell of an actress.

Soprano Symone Harcum was daughter Beatrice, and soared through Heggie's higher-lying music with ease and beautiful, lustrous tone. She softened what I felt was (in the original performances) a difficult-to-love, emotionally character and had the audience's sympathies early on.

As son and brother Charlie, Yazid Gray was every bit the equal of his mom and sister. A beautifully produced baritone and touchingly effective actor, Gray brought Charlie's grief and resentment to life without presenting a character that could easily morph into the maudlin. That line was never crossed and Gray’s Charlie seemed to be both balance and anchor of the family.

Music Director Timothy Steele had the difficult task of playing a single piano reduction of the score which did not allow always for nuances that a full ensemble would have provided. But jeez, did he play it brilliantly, and held the entire work together in a most admirable performance.

Interestingly, surtitles were provided for the performance, but they were never needed because of the amazing clarity of diction from the cast, I'm not certain a single pair of eyes ever looked up. How could we? We couldn't take our eyes off the stage.

We don't get a lot of contemporary opera in Maine, so "Three Decembers" was a most welcome gift from Opera Maine. More please!

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