Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 25, 2022

REVIEW: Berkshire Opera Festival, “Three Decembers”

Berkshire Opera Festival, Great Barrington, MA
through July 23, 2022
by Michael J. Moran

BOF launched its seventh season with this 90-minute one-act chamber opera in three parts at 21/Performance Spaces for the 21st Century, an open-air pavilion in the Berkshire foothills of Chatham, NY. Based on the unpublished play “Some Christmas Letters” by Terence McNally, its colorful music is by Jake Heggie and idiomatic libretto by Gene Scheer.   

Written in 2008 for three singers and 11 instrumentalists, it tells the story of famous theater actress Madeline Mitchell and her two adult children - Beatrice and Charlie - over three decades (1986, 1996 and 2006), each section depicting the events of a December as they struggle to reconnect after Madeline’s career has made her a frequent “absentee mother” following the mysterious early death of the siblings’ father.  

Photo by Matt Madison-Clark
The opening scene, when Beatrice and Charlie mock the grandiose tone of their mother’s
annual Christmas letter in a phone conversation, established everyone’s character. Theo Hoffman’s strong, incisive baritone rendered Charlie’s dismay that Madeline has never bothered to meet his lover, Burt, who is dying of AIDS (“She called him Curt”), along with an underlying playfulness that he can’t totally suppress. Monica Dewey’s clear, buoyant soprano captured Beatrice’s distress in her unhappy marriage, as well as her delight in happier memories of their father.

Mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala embodied Madeline the glamorous diva with self-centered bravado but brought poignant vulnerability to Madeline the mother as the trio’s often troubled interactions led in later scenes to some measure of mutual understanding and acceptance. The closing coup de theatre fully befits a great lady of the stage, who has the surprising last word. 
Conductor Christopher James Ray led a virtuosic ensemble from the BOF orchestra in an incandescent account of Heggie’s eclectic score, which adds a Broadway-like flourish to the emotional depth of his better known “Dead Man Walking.” Director Beth Greenberg drew commanding portrayals from all three performers. Imaginative scenic design by Janie E. Howland, sensitive lighting by Alex Jainchill, and vibrant costumes by Brooke Stanton further enhanced the powerful impact of this brilliant production.

Yet to come in BOF’s 2022 season are: a free concert of music by Black composers at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield (August 10); and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington (August 20, 23, and 26).