Three Decembers (2008)
Libretto by Gene Scheer & Music by Jake Heggie
Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer have created a first-rate modern American work that proves that the new American opera is alive and well…
Three Decembers may be closer in letter and spirit to a musical comedy than it is to opera, but what of that? It’s sharp and witty and poignant, and it gave Chicago Opera Theater an engaging crowd-pleaser with which to wrap up its spring season… Heggie has provided smart, simple, accessible music to flesh out he characters’ tangled emotions, with long stretches of instrumentally-driven parlando giving way to tender lyrical episodes. The score reminds you how achingly expressive a simple song can be. Heggie loves the singing voice and he writes beautifully for singers, which is more than can be said, alas, for many contemporary composers.
Like earlier works by Heggie, such as Dead Man Walking, the music here is tuneful and expressive, with his usual affinity for the human voice. But the composer’s complex uncompromising language gives the score backbone and never allows it to sink into sentimentalism.
… it’s hard to imagine any work in recent years that has filled us with so much hope for the survival of the art form. Heggie, you see, is willing and able to grapple with opera as musical theater, as he did triumphantly in Dead Man Walking… With Last Acts, he not only returned to straightforward (and deep) human emotions but perhaps pointed to ways opera itself might find and delight a new audience…he kept the cast small [and] kept the orchestra for Last Acts tiny as well, and even played one of the two pianos himself, with a dexterity and sensitivity that recalled those scratchy recordings of Gershwin playing his stuff. The libretto by Gene Scheer is lovely: funny, sad, candid, painful, and sporting a few modern expletives that (humorously) never showed up on the HGO surtitles … The ensemble pieces for two or even all three singers are heartbreaking in their lilting harmonies. Most sounded like lullabies written to sing angels to sleep, with extraordinary orchestrations to match, and they were sung as such by von Stade with lyric baritone Keith Phares, making his HGO debut as son Charlie, and soprano Kristin Clayton as troubled daughter Beatrice. Last Acts is intimate, thought-provoking, clearly heartfelt by all concerned and touching from beginning to end
…the opera provides a vastly rewarding evening of music drama and aptly demonstrates a raison d’etre for Heggie’s viability as an opera composer: his music is primarily character-driven. Time and again, we are aurally reminded of someone’s affective experience… Heggie’s people move us because they have musical souls.
Three Decembers is a modern masterpiece, and it documents the unusually intense collaboration between Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, his partner also in Moby-Dick. It is a triumph for Central City… …Heggie’s voice remains his own – closer here to Broadway than the Met. That, however, is of little concern. It is music that speaks to the heart; it provokes feeling and demands emotional reaction. He is clearly America’s No. 1 opera composer.
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…the finest modern opera 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.