Jake Heggie's 2007 chamber opera Three Decembers, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, is based on a play by Terrence McNally. It traces the troubled relationship between a grown brother and sister, Charlie and Bea, and their widowed mother, Maddy, a famous actress, over the course of three decades. Charlie and Bea seem driven by their disappointment and bitterness over Maddy's self-absorption and lack of love for them, and by their idealized images of a barely remembered father who died when they were very young. Each scene deepens the complexity of the characters' fumbled attempts to reach out to each other and comes to a kind of bittersweet resolution when the children deliver the eulogy at Maddy's memorial service.
The score shows the easy lyricism typical of Heggie's style and has the strong flavor of musical theater. Both the opera's strength and weakness lie in its lyricism. The vocal lines are gratifying and expressive, and every individual number is effective. Music in opera, though, needs to convey a wide range of intensities that delineate the dramatic contour of the piece, and Heggie's continuous lyrical effusion operates here within a fairly narrow expressive range; the music of the characters' climactic argument can barely be differentiated in its emotional intensity from the music accompanying the mundane squabbles that make up much of the rest of the opera. Even though the opera may not be fully successful as an integrated theatrical piece, it's deeply moving in its particulars, and it would be nearly impossible not to be touched by the sadness of the vividly drawn characters' inability to acknowledge and express their love for each other.
This recording was taken from a live performance by the Houston Grand Opera. The opera is scored for a chamber ensemble that operates without a conductor, but is undoubtedly subtly led by the composer, who plays one of the piano parts. The cast is outstanding; Frederica von Stade, Keith Phares, and Kristin Clayton sing with warm, glowing tone, and all are superb actors. The sound is good for a live recording, with clarity and an excellent sense of presence, and with very little stage or audience noise.