“Three Decembers is the finest modern opera that I have seen.” So wrote Chicago reviewer Tom Williams, having seen its premiere in 2008, and I can do no more than concur!
Jake Heggie is an American composer, born in 1961, whose style is very approachable: romantic with broad, sweeping melodies: theatrical but never outstaying its welcome. Originally slated to be a commercial two-act “music theatre” production with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, based on an unpublished play Some Christmas Letters by Terence McNally, it developed into a 90-minute one-act opera when Schwartz withdrew in order to work on a musical with Alan Menken.
It tells the story of a famous stage actress (Madeleine) and her two adult children ( Bea and Charlie) over three decades of the Aids Crisis – 1986, 1996 and 2006 – each December recalling the events of the year as the protagonists struggle to cope when family secrets are revealed. The original title was Last Acts and is perhaps more appropriate.
This long-delayed British premiere has been staged by ever-inventive Opera della Luna, and I have no hesitation in saying that it is superb in almost every respect.
Lucy Schaufer impresses as matriarch Madeleine, much of the action taking place in a theatre where she is performing. Not only does Schaufer possess a rock-solid technique and a creamy mezzo, she is also a true singing actor, using facial expressions subtly. This role was originally written for Frederica von Stade, and Schaufer does not suffer anything by comparison.
Charlie, her son, is portrayed by Canadian Jean Kristof Bouton who demonstrates a rich baritone with excellent enunciation and, like Schaufer, true acting ability: he is very believable and watchable.
Bea, Madeleine’s daughter is sung by Llio Evans who possesses a slightly hard, metallic voice which suits her role.
Director Jeff Clarke must be congratulated on a simple production that aids the understanding of the piece on first hearing; Elroy Ashmore has also opted for the “simple is best” approach by not trying to design a set which takes the focus off the protagonists: in fact, they are asked to change the set from one space to the next during orchestral interludes, a few boxes here, a scaffold pole there… Lighting Design is by Matthew Cater, occasionally failing to light singers’ faces, and proving that it is impossible to light two people with one follow spot!
The eleven-piece orchestra under Toby Purser occasionally swamped the voices from where I was sitting, situated as it was at the side of the stage at ground level, but demonstrated Heggie’s skill in orchestrating for a chamber ensemble.
This is an opera that I would love to see again and hope that I get the opportunity! I have no hesitation in recommending this strongly to all those interested in musical theatre, not just opera. BUT you will have to be quick – Wilton’s is a small theatre and Three Decembers only runs until this Saturday, before transferring to the Lowry, Salford, in September.
Review by John Groves
The UK premiere of a chamber opera by one of America’s most exciting contemporary composers: Jake Heggie.
Libretto by Gene Scheer, based on Terrence McNally’s original script Some Christmas Letters.
It tells the story of a Broadway stage actress, Madeline Mitchell and her two adult children: Beatrice and Charlie, and takes place over three decades of the AIDS crisis (1986, 1996 and 2006). Each section recalls the events of a December as the characters struggle to connect when family secrets are revealed.
The opera has been staged in Houston, San Jose, San Diego, Washington, Portland, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, St Louis, and Hawaii.
This will be its first production in the UK.
Madeline Mitchell: LUCY SCHAUFER
Beatrice, her daughter: LLIO EVANS
Charlie, her son: JEAN-KRISTOF BOUTON
Director: JEFF CLARKE
Conductor: TOBY PURSER
7th May to 21st May 2022