The Atlanta Opera concluded its 2014-15 season with the inauguration of its Discoveries series and Jake Heggie’s chamber opera Three Decembers at the intimate Alliance Theatre (seen May 29). Next season, in addition to three main stage productions at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, the Atlanta Opera will cater to audiences that are looking for newly-composed works and innovative perspectives on timeless music at satellite venues around the city. In this vein, artistic director Tomer Zvulun will offer a semi-staged performance of Schubert’s Winterreise as well as David T. Little’s Soldier Songs.
Both composer Heggie and his librettist Gene Scheer were in the audience for Atlanta’s Three Decembers opening, in which Theodora Hanslowe sang the role of Madeline Mitchell, a self-involved actress and mother of two resentful adult children, Bea (Jennifer Black) and Charlie (Jesse Blumberg). Although comprised of two acts, the opera was played without a break for a tidy running time of just over an hour and a half.
The initial scene is set during Christmas 1986 as Charlie and Bea discuss their mother’s most recent Christmas letter over the phone, mocking and editorializing as they go. Baritone Jesse Blumberg revealed himself as an expressive and physical singer early on, ideal for lyric musical theater roles. We learn early on that Bea drinks too much and struggles with a rocky marriage while her brother is distraught over his partner’s battle with AIDS and imminent death. The story skips ahead to 1996 when the small family reunites to attend the Tony Awards together and finally comes to a close in 2006 at Madeline’s funeral.
Designer Laura Jellinek’s economical set was comprised of a three-tiered view, one level representing each character’s living room, bedecked with Brady Bunch-era furniture and cleverly framed with orange, psychedelic wallpaper. Later, in the Golden Gate Bridge scene, the eye-popping backdrop raised up to reveal a vast and foggy atmosphere.
Jake Heggie cut his teeth on art song; his fluid text setting for Three Decembers, with a supportive accompaniment by a small chamber orchestra of eleven players aptly serves the spoken word. The tessitura for each of the parts here is primarily middle voice, but even in moments in which the bright, engaging soprano Jennifer Black was called to sing soaring notes, words were easily understood. Steven Osgood conducted from the piano, coaxing a consistently warm timbre from his players. Meter transitions were seamless and utterly gratifying. Heggie saved some of the best writing for Maddy, the part that he created for Frederica von Stade. “The Moon’s Lullaby” to Charlie is one such moment. Maddy’s role is written for a mature voice that still possesses innate beauty. Hanslowe fit the bill; a mezzo-soprano who once sang Rosina and Isabella at the Met, her high notes are still round and resonant.
But Three Decembers lacks momentum. There is a fourth unseen character —“Daddy”—and most of the plot revolves around remembrances of him and the untold secret of his suicide. As a result, the action stalls from time to time and the characters feel two-dimensional. Stage Director Emma Griffin and her cast made the most of these lackluster parts; the Bea-Charlie duet “What do you remember about Dad?” was intimate and reiterated the siblings’ closeness, but the characters don’t have an opportunity to change or grow until the end when they give the sudden impression that they have come to terms with a mother who wasn’t all that maternal.
Maddy, the Tony-winning mother, makes one final appearance as an unseen specter at her own funeral at the end of Act II. She acknowledges her wrongdoing and in the final moments of the opera walks toward a lone ghost light on the stage with the declaration, “Curtain!” It is a fitting ending to a bittersweet chamber opera.