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Sentimental Decembers

December 12, 2008

December is a strange, hormonal time of year. We look back at the past 12 months and sigh and wonder where it all could have gone to and greet with trepidation the 12 that lie ahead, knowing that they too will be gone in a whisper.

This is the prevailing mood that hangs over Jake Heggie's chamber opera,Three Decembers, which I caught in its west coast premiere at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley last night.

Based on Terence McNally's short play Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls) the opera charts the relationship between the members of an American family -- a renowned stage actress by the name of Madeline Mitchell and her two adult children, Bea and Charlie. The action takes place over three decades. In Gene Scheer's libretto, we first meet the characters in December 1986. Charlie's boyfriend Burt is dying of AIDS, Bea is feeling less happily married than she should be and Madeline is being a self-centered diva / "absentee mother." Cut to ten years later, and Charlie is lamenting the death, seven weeks previously, of Burt. Bea is coming to terms with being married to a philanderer and Mitchell is even more engrossed in herself than she's ever been as she prepares to go to the Tony Awards ceremony. Fast forward again to December 2006, and Madeline is dead. The hatchet is deeply buried and Madeline's children reminisce fondly about her at the funeral.

It's hard not to get involved in the lives of all three characters. Heggie's romantic, American musical-tinged writing goes straight to the heart. The soaring strings, melancholy winds and lush piano orchestration helps couch the story in wistful warmth. The cast all act and sing superbly. Heggie wrote the part of Madeline for the great American mezzo Frederica von Stade. Stade inhabits the diva with the poise and haughtiness a Chekhovian/Shavian matron. As comically self-centered as she is, we still feel empathetic towards her. Keith Phare tinges his Charlie with regret and resilience. We feel for his loss and also see his inner strength. And Kristin Clayton's Bea is spiky and petulant, though we also feel her pain and her deep-seated love for her mother, as impossible as the relationship seems.

Despite the vacuum-like barrenness of Zellerbach Hall as a venue, the cast and on-stage chamber orchestra create an intimate experience. And yet for all the familial warmth, the production kind of left me feeling cold. It isn't just the overbearing sentimentality of the ending, the kitschiness of the music, with its touches of Bernstein and Gershwin and Andrew Lloyd Webber, also creates a wall between the experience and my ability to surrender to it. Still, the piece definitely suits the emotions that typically go with this confusing, backwards-and-forwards-looking time of year.

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