Denyce Graves (top), Nicole Joseph, & Carlton Ford in Three Decembers.
Photo by Bill Brymer.
By Jake Heggie
Directed by William Florescu
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents copyright © 2015 Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
As the lights rise on the Thomson Smillie Stage at The Brown Theatre there upon it a double level set, three slabs of what resemble slate or rock, a desk, couch, chair and side table. What’s that in the background? Well, I’ll be, it is the orchestra. Not the full orchestra, mind you, but a chamber orchestra. Three Decembers is considered a chamber opera. Simply put, a chamber opera is written for a smaller orchestral ensemble, rather than a full orchestra. There aren’t many out there, but one of the most notable composers to do so was Benjamin Britten. And now, include Jake Heggie in that fold. And he does it well.
If you are not familiar with Mr. Heggie, please do yourself a favor and look him up. A composer of many works that include Dead Man Walking, Moby Dick and most recently, Great Scott. He is prolific to be sure.
I will be the first to admit that I get a little hesitant when it comes to modern operas, but, in getting to know Mr. Heggie’s style, his compositions lend themselves more to musical theater than opera, which is true for his Three Decembers, although it is performed in recitative and song/aria style.
Based on a Terrance McNally play, Three Decembers is a story of an aging actress Madeline “Maddy” Mitchell (Denyce Graves) and her two children, Beatrice (Nicole Joseph) and Charlie (Carlton Ford). The Mitchell family is hurting and the way that Heggie reveals each character’s pain is simple and elegant. Charlie, the youngest child, is nursing his partner Burt, who is dying of AIDS, his sister Bea is married to an unfaithful husband with two children, and Maddy has been holding a heartbreaking secret the entire life of her children.
While Maddy was an absentee mother at best, and their father long since deceased, the children formed a very tight bond: the chemistry of which Mr. Ford and Ms. Joseph demonstrate very convincingly on the stage. I am not ashamed to admit that during their duet, while reminiscing about their father, this reviewer dabbed her eyes a few times. Perhaps one of the most striking and beautiful moments within this opera filled with sentiment and veracity.
As the name implies, within three Decembers, around Christmas time, we catch pivotal moments within each of these character’s lives: some are triumphant, while others are heartbreaking. It is soap opera to be sure, but I can attest that the delivery and singing is anything but overwrought. These singers are absolutely spot on.
Carlton Ford’s baritone was lyrically clear and had enough sadness when it was called for and plenty of dominate force too. Nicole Joseph’s Bea was perhaps the most interesting to watch. Her soprano is full of power and verve and in her most tender moments she accentuates grace all while her character goes through troubling revelations.
As for Denyce Graves, what can I say? There is a reason why she has been and is one of the most sought after Mezzos in the opera world. She was Maddy; mannerisms, costumes, voice, tone – All of it. When Ms. Graves soars on her top or reaches some of the lower notes of her register, she is consistent in tone and quality.
Speaking of costumes, can I just say – Wow! Costume Designer Lorraine Venberg knocked it out of the park, especially with the dresses that Ms. Graves wore. To that point though, I have to state, although I understand why costume/set changes are needed for the story, I found, even while enjoying the chamber orchestra, that I was bored during those changes: case in point, it took what seemed like 5 minutes for Maddy to change into a dress that we only saw her in for 30 seconds. It may be something that Director William Florescu couldn’t tighten up, or it just may be part of the nuance of the score. Long changes notwithstanding, I believe the staging was otherwise perfect for the setting.
The set allowed for clever lighting by Ken Smith to superimpose various pieces of scenery to be projected on stage to have a sense of place. And Prop Mistress Alice Baldwin did very well in finding the right prop for the right decade.
Despite an errant string or two, Conductor Robert Wood led a fantastic group of chamber musicians.
Three Decembers touches on many subjects and does so in a haunting and beautiful way. This piece will stick with you for a little while. I highly recommend it.
Friday, November 13, 2015 @ 8pm
Sunday, November 15, 2015 @ 2pm
W.L. Lyons Brown Theatre
315 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202
Annette Skaggs is a heavily involved Arts Advocate here in Louisville and freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York Opera and Northwestern University. She has a 25+ year knowledge of the Classical Arts.