Customer Review

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A New Resonance to the Term Soap Opera, December 12, 2008
This review is from: Three Decembers (Audio CD)
Complaining about sentimentality in an opera may not prove convincing, given how gloriously sentimental most of the standard 19th C repertory is. La Boheme? Tosca? Madame Butterfly? Nonetheless, Jake Heggie's chamber opera Three Decembers exceeds my personal sentimentality quota, both in its libretto and its music. The drama involves the miscommunications and lies between a narcissistic actress mother and her two grown children. The father died when the children were small, and the secret of his suicide is at the core of the drama. The son is gay and the mother is unaccepting. The daughter has an unfaithful hubby and takes to drink. Eventually the mother dies, her ghost joins the two siblings on stage to sing a paean to life, and it seems that the trio is finally reconciled in a shower of spiritual confetti.

Perhaps I just can't envision our mass-media lives as operatic material. I can't hear transcendence sung in off-the-rack miracle-fabric costumes, I can't help seeing this libretto as a paint-by-the-numbers interchangeable-tragedies soap opera. It's probably my shortcoming, but I'm being honest. So much is so pat and pertinent to our mass transit to mortality. Besides, I think I'm supposed to be titillated by hearing opera singers sing the forbidden four-letter words, as in a David Mamet drama, and I'm not.

Frankly, except that the music is a little too abstract, Three Decembers would play better as a Broadway Show than as an opera. That's not inherently a flaw, of course; it's my attempt at a realistic assessment of the treatment. There are scenes -- the best scenes, in fact, like the playful duet the sibs sing about the salvation to be had from buying new shoes -- that could succeed instantly on Broadway. The sounds coming from the small on-stage chamber orchestra would satisfy a Broadway crowd. The larger part of the vocal score, however, would need work. It's oddly unmelodic "Spreckstimme" stuff, so errant in tonality that all three singers lost the key at least once. I have to wonder: in a work so close to its 'pop' culture influences, why couldn't composer Heggie have offered us the tantalizing pleasure of more melodic vocal lines? As it stands, the work is in a kind of compositional limbo, between contemporary operetta and truly bold modernism.

I have to mention that, for the paying audience at Cal Performances, the whole point of Three Decembers was as a vehicle for the musical farewell of Frederica von Stade, one of the greatest and most beloved singers of her era. She brought full measure of pizazz to the role of the Tony-winning mother; the plaudits were room-shaking. She sings the part on this CD also, but without her physical presence the magic isn't obvious.

Was there anything excellent about Three Decembers? If so, I missed it, but my wife liked it much better than I did. She's a psychologist. She thought the drama was "real." I'm a musician. I thought the music was dull.
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