Berkshire Opera Festival’s Three Decembers sizzles as temperatures soar onstage and off

United StatesUnited States Jake Heggie, Three Decembers: Soloists, Berkshire Opera Festival Orchestra / Christopher James Ray (conductor). Berkshire Opera Festival, PS 21/Pavilion Theater, Chatham, NY, 23.7.2022. (RP)

Adriana Zabala (Madeline) and Monica Dewey (Beatrice) © Matt Madison-Clark

Director – Beth Greenberg
Libretto – Gene Scheer
Sets – Janie E. Howland
Costumes – Brooke Stanton
Lighting – Alex Jainchill
Hair & Makeup – Beckie Kravertz

Madeline Mitchell – Adriana Zabala
Beatrice – Monica Dewey
Charlie – Theo Hoffman

Years ago, I attended a few parties graced by the presence of film and television star Ruth Warwick, for whom fortune struck during Hollywood’s Golden Age with her first film role in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. By the time I met her, Warwick was equally famous for her long-running role in the soap opera All My Children. She was the epitome of glamour and wit, with more than a soupçon of vanity, an essential component of stardom. Adriana Zabala captured that persona perfectly in her portrayal of Madeline Mitchell in Berkshire Opera Festival’s excellent production of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers.

Gene Scheer based his libretto on the play of the same name by the late Terrence McNally. For the five-time Tony Award winner, the themes that run through Three Decembers – loss, sorrow, survival – were his daily bread, both professionally and personally. A gay man, he had survived AIDS only to succumb to complications from Covid in March 2020. It must have pleased him no end to have one of his plays turned into an opera, as he was a fan of the genre. Moreover, his play Master Class, which delved into the psyche of legendary opera soprano Maria Callas, had won the Tony Award for Best Play.

The action centers on Broadway star Madeline Mitchell and her two adult children, Beatrice (soprano Monica Dewey) and Charlie (baritone Theo Hoffman). The tragedy that unites and divides them was the death of Madeline’s husband and their father, Charles, whom they barely remember. To spare her children, Madeline told them that he had been killed when struck by a car. In fact, he had committed suicide and, when the truth is disclosed, Beatrice and Charlie view this as a betrayal. Madeline buys none of it: she was a single mother with two kids to support for whom fiction was more useful than fact.

Theo Hoffman (Charlie) © Matt Madison-Clark

Taking place over the span of three Christmases from 1986 to 2006 (Madeline’s annual all-about-me Christmas letters are a theme that runs through the play), the family saga unfolds against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. Charlie is gay, and his lover has the disease. For whatever reason, Madeline refuses to acknowledge his lover, Burt, and repeatedly calls him by the wrong name. Beatrice is married to a philandering husband who assuages his guilt by buying her eye-popping diamonds. Alcohol is her panacea.

Madeline may have been a bust as a mother when Charlie was a boy or a young man in love, but she rallies to his side as Burt is dying. She tells Beatrice that she understands her brother but can’t fathom what is up with her daughter. The reality is that Beatrice reminds Madeline of her husband, who had a depressive streak and drank too much, with the talent but not the grit to make it as an actor.

The final scene, when all of the family secrets are disclosed, takes place as Madeline is preparing to attend the Tony Awards as a nominee for Best Actress. From the start, Beatrice and Charlie knew this would be all about their mother. Her son is mortified that she is going to co-opt the story of his lover’s death by including it in her acceptance speech. For children who bewailed their mother’s absences when they were children and with the elephant now out of the room, it is their turn to abandon her. Madeline pulls herself together and bedazzled in sequins, jewels and furs, never looks back as she forges onward.

Scored for strings, woodwinds, percussion and two pianos, Heggie’s score is tuneful and his style accessible. Scheer’s libretto may get a bit maudlin towards the end, but he creates space for some moving arias, especially those for Madeline and Charlie. Beatrice is too bottled-up emotionally for soaring anthems, and her feelings are more often released in outbursts of bitterness and anger.

Melody is not confined to the singers, however, and is generously sprinkled throughout the orchestra. The lion’s share goes to the oboe, and Paul Lueders’ playing was exceptionally beautiful and moving. Much the same can be said of the reading of conductor Christopher James Ray, who has led two prior productions of Three Decembers. Ray made Heggie’s score pop with energy and throb with emotion.

Director Beth Greenberg’s concept for the opera focused on detailed characterizations that shied from stereotype to the extent possible. The set was simple, with platforms that were quickly and efficiently transformed into various settings against the backdrop of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. As newlyweds, Madeline and Charles had walked across it to Sausalito on their first Christmas, where they dined on crab and chowder (which became a family tradition). Their children returned as adults to embrace a past that was as much fiction as fact.

Berkshire Festival Opera assembled an excellent trio of singers who invested these fascinating characters with depth and emotion. As Beatrice, Monica Dewey got to the core of Beatrice’s conflicted personality, not only through her acting but with a voice that blazed with feeling. Theo Hoffman’s baritone was smooth and refined, as was his even-keeled Charlie, who wisely left the drama to his mother and sister.

But this was Adriana Zabala’s show, and she created a somewhat faded but still grand Broadway star who competed with the legends. Heggie captured Madeline’s complexities in song, and Zabala tugged at your heartstrings when she sang them. Zabala may be an opera singer, but there is more than a bit of Broadway Baby in her. She was as sizzling as the temperatures outside on a very hot July afternoon.

Rick Perdian

For more on the 2022 Berkshire Opera Festival, click here.

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