It is, perhaps, not unfamiliar for the LGBT community that sexual orientation often leads to tension and alienation within families. Jake Heggie's "Three Decembers", a chamber opera with a distinct Broadway style, examines how our society progresses on identity, through a story of estrangement and reconciliation of an American family spanning three decades.
Based on Terrence McNally's play "Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls)," the opera brings together three main characters to share one stage divided into two levels. Yet at the very beginning, a Christmas season in 1986, they are no more mentally alienated than they are geographically separated.
Madeline Mitchell lives in her own realm as a Broadway star. Her two adult children, Bea and Charlie, have formed their own family, though neither is smooth going. Bea, a mom of two, will later learn of her husband's affair. Charlie sees his lover Kurt dying of AIDS; even worse, he is torn about his relationship not being recognized by his only parent, Maddy.
The family tension snarls into the next decade and culminates on the night before a Tony Awards ceremony in which Maddy has been nominated. In such a rare moment when the whole family can finally talk face to face, the veils that barely check misunderstanding within the dysfunctional family suddenly break down -- on the very topic of the death of the mysterious Dad who seems to tie everyone together.
Jake Heggie started composing the work as a Broadway show, until the scope went beyond a musical's reach. Thus the singers must often switch between scintillating light-hued cabaret style and full-blown voice. Mr. Heggie has dominated American contemporary opera scenes with his heavy pieces such as "Dead Man Walking" and "Moby Dick" (which premiered last year at the Dallas Opera House).
In "Three Decembers," a lighter work, his many memorable arias ("Daybreak") and duets ("No more regrets, no more tears, no more lies," and "I remember"), reminiscent of the 19th century Italian operas, prove, once and again, beautiful melodies reign.
If part of the singing is more or less cabaret inspired, Mr. Heggie's scoring for orchestra reflects the influence of minimalists like Philip Glass. Often, the pianos are played on repetitively structured motifs or rotary octaves. Instead of building melodies, the orchestra generates moods and suspense of distinct modern psyche, leaving singers alone for their only melodies.
Thus a chamber-sized orchestra helps maintain the clarity and transparency of the work. Two pianos, percussion, five strings and three wind players perform offstage. However, the non-amplified sound proves occasionally lacking of the immediacy and impact, especially at the height of the show.
When Maddy collapses on the floor recalling the random death of her husband, the strings tremble in high notes, the pianos cycle on a downward five-note motif while percussion looms large; all seem muffled with little projection.
Matthew Worth as Charlie has a beautiful baritone voice, deep and emotional. His crisp-clear enunciation helps the narration of the story when the captions are not available in the show.
Emily Pulley as Bea has a large stage presence. Her bright voice, especially in the upper registers, sounds fuller than the capacity of the intimate Scott Theater.
Janice Hall as Madeline does not project a larger-than-life star mom at the beginning. She articulates her melody lines with great precision, yet her position at the stage (most often in the back of the second level) hinders her voice from being fully exposed. It is not until in the, "No more regrets, no more tears, no more lies" that she opens up her voice with majesty and elegance.
A romantic interlude that is played before the last scene was added by Mr. Heggie two years ago, to allow the whole opera to be performed in one act. In the last scene (year 2006), Bea and Charlie reconcile with their mom at her memorial service.
Here the director Candace Evans and set designer Bob Lavallee create a stunning setting by bringing alive a theatre stage shimmering in gold. Maddy, appearing in her beautiful nightgown, ascends to the top of the stage under a full moon and sparkling stars.
She then turns around slowly and opens her arms, as if she is about to accept an award -- except this time it is something bigger and better: the love of her children.
"Three Decembers," one of the four operas presented in 2012 Fort Worth Opera Festival, runs through June 2 at the Scott Theatre of Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy Street, Fort Worth, TX. For info or tickets call 817-731-0726 or visit http://www.fwopera.org