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Opera review: A magnificent “Three Decembers”

  • COURTESY HAWAII OPERA THEATRE

    Kristin Clayton, left, Keith Phares and Frederica Von Stade portray members of a dysfunctional family in “Three Decembers,” a Hawaii Opera Theatre production staged this weekend at Hawaii Theatre.

So that’s how it’s done. That’s how you tell a story that’s funny, sad, sweet, heart-wrenching, and real, all at the same time.

That and more is what Hawaii Opera Theatre’s staging of “Three Decembers” has managed to accomplish. It opened Friday for a weekend run at Hawaii Theatre before heading off to the neighbor islands, the first time HOT has created a “touring production.”

‘THREE DECEMBERS’

Where: Hawaii Theatre

When: 8 p.m. today, 4 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $30-$90

Info: hawaiitheatre.com or 528-0506; hawaiiopera.org or 596-7858

>> “Three Decembers” will also be performed Wednesday at Kahilu Theatre, Hawaii island, $20-$75, kahilutheatre.org or 808-885-6868; March 31 at Kauai Community College in Lihue, $25 and $45, hawaiiopera.org or 808-596-7858; and April 1 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului, $30-$60, mauiarts.org or 808-242-7469. Visit hawaiiopera.org for info.

>> “Three Decembers” composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer will discuss their work 30 minutes before today’s performance. Director Karen Tiller will speak before Sunday’s performance. Heggie and Scheer will also appear before the Hawaii island performance.

The hook for this show is the Hawaii debut of mezzo soprano Frederica Von Stade, an artist of the highest rank. Over most of the last 45 years, she has performed in all of the world’s major opera houses and concert halls, usually as the star attraction.

In this production, however, Von Stade, as they would say in the commercials, was no star, she merely played one — and played it to perfection. She was completely believable as Broadway actress Maddie Mitchell, a diva in the worst sense of the word. Yet as wonderful as Von Stade’s characterization was, it was matched beautifully by the acting and singing of her fellow cast members: baritone Keith Phares, who plays Maddie’s troubled son Charlie, and soprano Kristin Clayton, who plays her suffering, suffocated daughter Bea.

The three comprised the original cast from “Three Decembers,” which premiered in 2008 in Houston and Berkeley, Calif. They’re so comfortable in the roles that even a slight miscue on stage, involving a shoe, was smoothly and perfectly ad-libbed into the performance.

Together, they virtually disappeared into their roles. Phares, through body language alone, conveyed Charlie as alternately exasperated with, then sympathetic, then protective of his mother as the story unfolds over a 30-year span, each scene occurring in December. Clayton too was multi-dimensional as Bea, her face basking in the glow of her mother’s celebrity, quick to show anger when mention of her long-deceased father surfaces, and explosive when the bottle bests her self-control.

Meanwhile, Von Stade’s vain, self-centered, yet vulnerable Maddie had some in the mesmerized audience making comparisons to a Meryl Streep performance. (I also felt a bit of Doris Roberts’ character from “Everybody Loves Raymond” – the mom pushing all the buttons, especially when Charlie’s homosexuality was broached).

The family dynamic was so realistic that perhaps only young children who still idolize their parents might think it rings untrue. (Given some of the language, it’s not suitable for them anyway.) We’ve all had problems with our parents, just as we love them. We’ve all fought with our siblings, just as we’ve also gone to them for comfort – and to share joke or two at the expense of our parents.

Guest director Karen Tiller’s terrific direction had Maddie’s dysfunctional family battling out their issues with everything from subtle gestures and casual asides to pitched battles. It was entirely convincing, even with much left to the imagination. When, for example, Bea complains about her own appearance, saying she looks like “a middle-aged mom with two kids in college,” Charlie cracks “You are.” Phares is actually off stage when he says this, and yet you can feel the smirk on his face.

Of course, “Three Decembers” is an opera, and this review has gotten this far without mentioning the music. That is only because composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer’s score is so effective that it too seems to disappear into the story. On its own, however, the music has moments of magnificence: Maddie’s Broadway-like ballad “Daybreak” when she reminisces about her time in Europe with her long-deceased husband, the subject of her horrible secret; Charlie’s rant over his mother’s failure to acknowledge his partner, saying “She calls him Kurt. His name is Burt”; Charlie and Bea’s sweet duet “Father’s chair,” at attempt to conjure up their father from childhood memories. The score also includes plenty of dissonant, jagged sections, especially when the spectre of AIDS arises – the unseen Burt has it, and Maddie can’t deal with it. It was all ably performed by the small ensemble of musicians, led by conductor Adam Turner, after a bit of balance issues in the opening moments.

The singing itself? Beyond tremendous. I simply have not heard singing so uniformly excellent, so authentically expressive before. In acoustically challenged Hawaii Theatre, with no supertitles and no mikes, the story was easy to follow, the jokes funny, the verbal jousting bitter, the moments of sharing wistful and tender.

Von Stade, at age 71, still has an effortless projection that has long enabled her to connect with an audience. Phares’ baritone is powerful throughout the range, with fantastic diction, and Clayton’s voice had all the emotional qualities needed for her demanding role. Their unison when singing together was spot on.

This is the first time that Von Stade, Phares and Clayton have performed “Three Decembers” together since the premiere performances nine years ago, and the changes in life and career that have occurred since then undoubtedly were reflected in this performance. With tastes that change, careers that evolve and schedules that get increasingly demanding, a reunion like this never happens in opera. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a production of such caliber, imbued with such depth.

Go see it.

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