Review: ‘Three Decembers’ from Opera San Jose (*****)

The great Susan Graham makes her company debut with Opera San Jose starring in Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers,” based on Terrence McNally’s unpublished play, “Some Christmas Letters,” with libretto by Gene Scheer. (L to R: Maya Kherani, Susan Graham, Efraín Solís. ) Photo Credit: David Allen.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Opera San Jose’s streaming production of “Three Decembers” is a winner in the COVID sweepstakes. As many companies struggle to figure out how to capture the feeling of live performance online, from ZOOM productions created by actors in solo isolation, to one-person shows, to what are essentially small films, Opera San Jose raises the bar considerably. “Three Decembers” is wonderfully satisfying.

Director Tara Branham, working with Flying Moose Pictures (a San Francisco video production company experienced in both traditional filmmaking and the documentation of live performance), has created a film that captures as much as possible of the live experience. The piece is discretely edited to allow for smooth story telling and the use of film techniques such as closeups and even pan shots, but the lighting, the setting, the overall feel consistently connect us to the performance in ways reminescent of a live experience. Particularly effective are the occasional incorporation of the conductor and two pianists into the visual story telling and the ample use of spotlighting rather than cinematic realism. It all works beautifully. Of course, with opera, there is the added difficulty of capturing the music with a high level of sound engineering, and this challenge is well met. In spite of the convincing illusion of seeing a live performance, everything has, in fact, been carefully edited to avoid the pitfalls of poor sound and awkward staging.

The story is the exploration of the family dynamic between a famous actress and her two adult children whom she raised as a single mother after her husband died sadly when they were very young. In the first December, the two children share over the telephone their mother’s Christmas letter and their personal struggles. Bea is unhappy, but it’s not clear why. Charlie is facing a rough time as his beloved partner Bert is struggling with AIDs. In the Christmas letter, their mother Maddy talks breezily about herself, and callously refers to Charlie’s partner as “Curt.” Later that month, Bea visits Maddy in her dressing room after a successful Broadway performance and confronts her about her callous attitude towards Charlie, and her history of absentee parenting.

The two subsequent Decembers, each ten years apart, follow up with the stories of Bert’s eventual death, an attempted reconciliation between Maddy and her children in which family secrets are revealed, and a final scene at Maddy’s memorial service where all is forgiven.

It is easy to see why the original play was never produced. The plotting and the details of the story are not particulary original or engaging, and similar stories have been managed better in many other plays, including those of Terrence McNally.

But with Heggie’s wonderful music and Gene Scheer’s efficient libretto, a fantastic transformation takes place. The music is pure emotion and if the details of the plot are not particulary engaging or emotionally moving it doesn’t matter. The evening is one gorgeous aria after another, expertly performed.

As Maddy, Susan Graham easily lives up to her excellent reputation, singing every note with grace, authority, and a haunting musicality. She is known for her expertise in contemporary opera repertoire, and she communicates every nuance. Her acting is believable in every moment. She is particularly stunning in her performance of the aria, “The Moon Sings A Song for you Every Night,” — a rendition of the lullaby which her son Charlie remembers from his childhood, as sung by his father. It is an extraordinary emotional moment between mother and son.

The excellent Efraín Solís, as Charlie, has several standout moments, but none more moving than the aria he sings describing his mother’s visit when she finally befriends Bert, before his death.

As Bea, Maya Kherani is also excellent. Heggie provides her with yet another memorable aria, “There’s a party tonight” as she prepares for the Tony Awards where her mother is a nominee.

These three arias alone make for a memorable experience, but they are merely high points of an altogether excellent score which is never dull or absent emotion. “Three Decembers” easily ranks with Heggie’s best work.

All of this excellence is well supported by Steven C. Kemp (set design), Alyssa Oania (Costume Coordinator), and David Lee Cuthberg (Lighting design).

Opera San Jose’s resident conductor Christopher James Ray is in complete control of the complex score, drawing superb nuance from the two pianists and the company of singers.

Even given the constraints of the COVID environment, this is a major production by a world class opera company. It is excellent, and would be an event for any season.

“Three Decembers” tickets may be purchased through January 31st and includes on-demand streaming for 30 days. For further information, click here.
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Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Three Decembers,” by Jake Heggie, libretto by Gene Scheer, based on an unpublished play by Terrence McNally. Produced by Opera San Jose. Director: Tara Branham. Conductor: Christopher James Ray. Set Design: Steven C. Kemp. Costume Coordinator: Alyssa Oania. Lighting Design: David Lee Cuthberg. Pianists: Veronika Agranov-Defoe and Sunny Yoon. Hair and Makeup Design: Christina Martin. Video Production: Flying Moose Pictures. Covid Safety Officer: Emily Wolf. Stage Manager: Jayme O’Hara.

Cast:

Charlie: Efraín Solís. Bea: Maya Kherani. Maddy: Susan Graham. 

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