COT’s “Three Decembers” is slight stuff but von Stade luminous in her operatic farewell

May 09, 2010

Frederica von Stade as Madeline Mitchell in Jake Heggie's "Three Decembers." Photo: Liz Lauren/COT.

At this moment, there are likely many composers who would enjoy being Jake Heggie.

His fourth opera, Moby Dick, opened nine days ago at Dallas Opera, sparking extraordinary excitement and drawing the kind of critical accolades rare in contemporary opera premieres. (George Loomis writing here was more ambivalent.)

The gifted 49-year-old composer is clearly the operatic man of the hour, and it would be nice to report that the Chicago premiere of his Three Decembers, which opened Saturday night at Chicago Opera Theater, is a comparable artistic success.

It isn’t. Unfortunately, the most significant element of this Chicago premiere—as the company itself recognized in its marketing campaign—is that these performances are marking the farewell opera appearances of the beloved mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade (In staged opera, that is. The singer will be back in August at Ravinia for a concert version of Cosi fan tutte.)

Adapted from a Terrence McNally play, Three Decembers premiered under the title Last Acts to a much less rapturous reception than Moby Dick at Houston Grand Opera in 2008. Designed as a vehicle for Heggie’s friend and advocate von Stade, the opera takes place in three scenes over thirty years, charting the troubled relationships of the celebrated actress Madeline Mitchell with her two adult children.

Both resent her long absences on the road and her lack of concern for the tragedies in their own lives. Her son Charlie believes his mother maintains distance because he is gay, and that she purposefully mistakes the name of his lover Burt, who is dying of AIDS. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, daughter Beatrice feels Madeline resents her affection for their father, killed, Maddy tells them, in a car accident when they were children. Over the decade intervals, long-simmering resentments surface, accusations are hurled and family secrets revealed, leading ultimately to a hard-won peace and forgiveness for both the living and the dead.

Heggie has slightly revised the score, and the changes are all gain. He has jettisoned Maddy’s original Broadway-style entrance aria About to break for a less showy and more effective song, Daybreak at last, somewhat diluting the ditzy Auntie Mame effect. Also tightening the two acts to one unbroken span makes the 95 minutes move more briskly.

Yet the predominating lightness of musical being remains, with Heggie’s score hovering unconvincingly between musical theater and opera. The music has its passing attractions as with the new song and the lovely duet for Charlie and Bea, What do you remember about Dad? But too much of the score is soft and amorphous veering between cabaret-style fluff—the campy Shoes Duet—and busy, accompanying figurations. Even with its profanity and self-conscious cleverness, Gene Scheer’s relentlessly verbose libretto never quite lifts the family-conflict scenario out of Lifetime Channel cliches with one too many corny epigrams (“Liz Taylor, eat your heart out”).

Still for all its weaknesses, Heggie’s opera is strangely endearing in its key moments and the touching intimacy was effectively put across by Chicago Opera Theater’s stylish production and three terrific singers.

Matthew Worth, who made a memorable COT debut in the title role of Owen Wingrave a year ago, built on that impressive debut as Charlie. Underplaying skillfully, Worth sang with a warm baritone and crystal-clear enunciation, painting a dignified, sensitive portrait of Madeline’s loving yet conflicted son.

Sara Jakubiak as Bea has fewer vocal opportunities, yet displayed her bright and flexible soprano to fine advantage, showing an affecting rapport with Worth as credible adult siblings.

But, of course, the opera and the evening belonged to Frederica von Stade. It’s ironic that the celebrated mezzo—the kindest and least pretentious of opera stars—in her swan song is playing an unpleasant diva like Madeline Mitchell, yet von Stade is a fine enough actress to pull it off.

The singer’s natural charisma sands off the harsh edges of her self-absorbed character making it hard to dislike the histrionic heroine. Looking terrific at 64 in her Cesar Galindo gowns, von Stade remains in solid vocal estate , singing well throughout, some tonal dryness and fitful wobble apart.

For a work that is essentially a concert performance anyway, Leonard Foglia’s deft staging suits COT’s current brand of cost-effective Minimalism. Composer Heggie and conductor Stephen Hargreaves shared piano duties with Hargreaves leading the small onstage ensemble alertly as well.

It’s doubtful that Three Decembers is a strong enough work to have a continuing life and future performances without the charismatic artist who inspired it in the leading role. Still, in its current guise COT’s production provides Heggie’s opera with sterling advocacy and Three Decembers makes a fitting and worthy farewell vehicle for one of our finest and most beloved singers.

Three Decembers will be repeated May 12, 14 and 16.; 312-704-8414.

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