Monday, December 15, 2008

New Opera: "Three Decembers"

"Three Decembers", a new chamber opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, opened a three-performance run on Thursday in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. This is the second opera by this pair, the first "Dead Man Walking" (2000) received rave reviews. Their most recent venture isn't doing as well.

Jeff Dunn, from San Francisco's Classical Voice says, "I longed for some decent melody. Almost all the melodic elements are merely accompaniment figures to pleasing though unmemorable arioso vocal lines. The only melody of significance, a cross between Faure’s Pavane and Pachelbel’s Canon, leaves little for the audience to whistle home about. This is a shame, because the libretto offers several opportunities for music to push rather than coddle its performers."

Josh Kosman, of the San Francisco Chronical, enjoyed the music but not the libretto, "Most striking is his (Heggie's) command of the rhythms of spoken English, and his ability to maneuver them deftly into the textures of the music. The vocal lines shift repeatedly from two beats to three and back again, always responding with winning ease to the demands of the text. And when he has the freedom to indulge his gift - as in a fizzy, funny waltz number about Maddy's obsession with shoes - the results are delightful. But Heggie's music can only go so far before it comes smack up against the bathos and dullness of the overall theatrical conception."

Sue Gilmore of the Contra Costa Times had this to say, "there is nothing of the grand sweep and scope of opera about it — no overtures, no arias, no spectacle. This is musical theater plain and simple, with librettist Gene Scheer's sung dialogue, almost always one note per syllable, dominating. In fact the orchestra, an 11-member ensemble that includes both Heggie and conductor Patrick Summers on separate pianos, plays right up there on stage with the three singers, Broadway style." While she later mentions liking the music, "Heggie's music, tuneful and pleasant, was quite clearly deployed in great service to the three voices," it didn't hit the mark the way she felt it should to really hold interest.

The concept of the opera is a glimpse at a mother-son relationship at 10 year intervals. Bernard Slade wrote "Same Time Next Year" which deals with a couple meeting every 10 years to have a one night stand. While it saw success both as a play and a movie, it's never been a story I thought did well. The characters are too distant in time segments for us to really get to know them and what we end up with is glimpses or shadows of a moment in time. Interesting concept, but not something that works theatrically.

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