As part of its mission, UrbanArias, the local chamber opera company housed in Artisphere’s black-box theater in Arlington, aims “to expose D.C.-area audiences to engaging, accessible, entertaining operas.” By those criteria, its production of Jake Heggie’s 90-minute, one-act opera “Three Decembers,” which opened Saturday, hit all the right buttons.
True, Gene Scheer’s libretto may have had the poetic nuance of a soap-opera script (you could predict the final zingers as they hove into sight), and the curve of the plot may have broadcast itself in flashing lights, but the score, for three singers and chamber orchestra, was sophisticated in its astringently classical/pop idiom, and the performances were terrific.
The story spans three Christmas seasons over three decades in the lives of Maddy, an actress, and her two grown children, Charlie, whose partner dies of AIDS, and Bea, who drinks to cope with a crumbling marriage. The two have found strength in shared memories of a father who died — in an accident, Maddy has told them — when they were children. “I’d only begun to fathom the depths of his goodness,” they sing. But then, as Maddy’s fraught relationship with her offspring comes to a head, she finally tells them the truth about a father who was anything but good and, in the third December, at Maddy’s memorial service, the two (and Maddy’s ghostly spirit) come to terms with their lives. Pretty melodramatic stuff but, hey, it’s opera.
Janice Hall as Maddy, Emily Pulley as Bea and Michael Mayes as Charlie were as strong dramatically as they were musically and, in a hall where no one is more than seven rows from the stage, every shade of facial expression and of vocal timbre speaks loudly. Mayes may have taken a little time to warm up to his role, but his body language as Maddy dropped her bombshell about his “Daddy,” and at the memorial service as Bea reflected on her relationship with Maddy, was eloquent.
Hall, a diminutive figure in a role originally written for the more commanding presence of Frederica von Stade, managed nevertheless to dominate the stage when she needed to and, while not vocally opulent, was powerful and agile. Pulley was riveting in everything she did.
Robert Wood led an excellent group of strings, woodwinds, percussion and pianos from the back of the stage, managing an easy-sounding ensemble although he and the singers had their backs to each other. Michael McConnell’s direction was economical and unfussy, and Greg Stevens’s appropriately cluttered set was designed with imaginative flexibility.
The show runs through Oct. 4.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.