Three Decembers

An Opera in One Act

Three Decembers, an opera by Jake Heggie
Three Decembers, an opera by Jake Heggie

By Jake Heggie

Libretto by Gene Scheer

Based on an original play by Terrence McNally

Conductor Stephen Hargreaves

Stage Director Amy Thompson

Produced by Chicago Opera Theater

At the Harris Theatre Chicago

Enchanting chamber opera a fresh musical experience

It is so lovely to come across a new, vibrant modern chamber opera that both enchants and soothes.  So is the case with Jake Heggie’s Chicago premiere of Three Decembers, an 95 minute chamber opera sung in English. If you’re thinking of introducing a young person to opera than Three Decembers would work nicely.

the three decembers by jake heggie

It is short, quite melodic, with a rich sound from the eleven member orchestra. It is easy to understand as it is sung in English (with  English supertitles). It contains a contemporary story and it is sung by two outstanding young performers – Matthew Worth (Charlie) (baritone) and Sara Jakubiak (Beatrice)( soprano).  And Three Decembers features the fabulous mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade as Madeline, the matriarch.  The three soar to the heavens with Heggie’s velvet score.

the three decembers by jake heggie

The motif for the 95 minute one act opera is a series of  Christmas letters Madeline sends to her son and daughter in 1986, 1996 and 2006.  Madeline is a Broadway musical comedy diva estranged from her gay son and her independent daughter.  Gene Scheer’s libretto is based on an original Terrance McNally play.  The dysfunctional family struggles with their emotional lives as each seeks their own personal and family identity.  Who we are and who are parents are can be a lifelong battle.  Charlie must deal with his mothers partial acceptance of his being gay and his dying lover. Beatrice struggles with her mothers preference for her art over her family.  Madeline has guilt over the secret she has keep from her children as to how her husband and their father died. When the secret is revealed the family relations change forever. The piece takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. The tension can be as taut as in a Partypoker game as the plot plays out before your eyes. The characters and the lines they speak inspire sadness, hope, compassion– holding you captive for the duration of the show.

Three Decembers is structured as an opera but it has the flare of a ‘serious’ emotional Broadway musical. Conductor Stephen Hargreaves has his 11 musicians on-stage creating a haunting sound that echoes the deep of the libretto. He utilizes 2 pianos, a percussionist, 5 strings, 3 wind players, 1 doubling oboe and English horn, 1 clarinet, and 3 on saxophones and flute.

The fabulous singing was emotionally rich from baritone  Matthew Worth to Sara Jakubiak’s stylized soprano. The two sang several smooth duets. But the star of the opera was the evocative charismatic work from  Frederica von Stade as Madeline. Seldom do you witness such a beautifully sung and expertly acted opera performance as give by von Stade in her last role before her retirement. She was fabulous.

Three Decembers is the finest modern opera that I’ve seen. Who said that no one is writing enchantingly wonderful new operas?  See Jake Heggie’s marvelous new work, it’ll dazzle you.  The opening night audience gave Three Decembers a roaring standing ovation. It sure deserved it. Add Three Decembers to your list of “Must See” operas.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

At the Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, Chicago, IL, call312-704-8414, tickets from $15 – $120 including student Ruch tickets, www.chicagooperatheater.org,  may 12, 14 at 7:30, May 16 at 3 pm, running time is 95 minutes without intermission.