Heggie: Three Decembers

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Heggie
LABELS: Albany
WORKS: Three Decembers
PERFORMER: Frederica von Stade, Kristin Clayton, Keith Phares; Houston Grand Opera Orchestra/Patrick Summers
CATALOGUE NO: TROY 1073-74

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Forget ‘CNN Opera’, the genre pioneered by John Adams. The composer Jake Heggie now brings us ‘Oprah Opera’, albeit with its subjects viewed over a longer span. Gene Scheer’s libretto for Three Decembers is based on Terrence McNally’s play Some Christmas Letters, and takes snapshots at ten-year intervals of a dysfunctional family.

It would be hard to imagine a more self-absorbed, petulant or recriminatory trio than Madeline, the diva who has always shown more devotion to Broadway limelight than her family, and her two grown-up children: Beatrice, experiencing marital trouble and alcoholism, and Charlie, whose partner has died of AIDS.

Lacking the moral weight that was the most redeeming feature of Heggie’s first opera, Dead Man Walking, the new work inhabits a no man’s land somewhere between Bernstein and Sondheim. Heggie is a gifted songwriter whose lines flatter singers, but in the theatre he produces unmemorable arioso. It’s all very well performed. Frederica von Stade is now in the twilight of her career, yet still manages to make something poignant of her Act II lullaby.

The soprano Kristin Clayton is bright and occasionally brittle as Beatrice, and Keith Phares brings a robust baritone to Charlie’s anguish. An 11-piece ensemble, led from two pianos by the conductor Patrick Summers and the composer himself, supply colourful backing.

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Vividly recorded at the Houston premiere last year, these discs could almost make you believe you’re in the theatre; but you will probably be grateful you aren’t. John Allison