One Tenor’s Spirit Haunts Operatic ‘Christmas Carol’

Jay Hunter Morris plays all of the roles in the world premiere of Iain Bell's 'A Christmas Carol' at Houston Grand Opera. <br (Production photos by Lynn Lane)
Jay Hunter Morris plays all of the roles in the world premiere of Iain Bell’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ at Houston Grand Opera.
By William Albright

HOUSTON — In the preface to A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens wrote of his immortal yuletide yarn, “May it haunt their houses pleasantly.” He was referring to readers’ houses, though, not opera houses. But that hasn’t stopped composers as noted as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Thea Musgrave, and Thomas Pasatieri and as comparatively little-known as Ján Cikker, Virginia Hageman, and Martin Kalmanoff from turning the tale into an opera for stages and even television screens.

British composer Iain Bell created a new 'Carol.' (Photo by Peter Mayr)
British composer Iain Bell created a new ‘Carol.’ (Photo by Peter Mayr)

The latest composer to fall under the ghost story’s spell is England’s Iain Bell, whose only previous opera, the Hogarth-inspired A Harlot’s Progress, was a success in Vienna in 2013. Bell’s A Christmas Carol had its world premiere Dec. 5 in a production by Houston Grand Opera. Bell’s opera is the first in a series of projected holiday-themed commissions. The company is raising $1 million for the project.

In A Christmas Carol, tenor Jay Hunter Morris plays all the characters in the libretto by award-winning British actor, director and Dickens scholar Simon Callow. The opera is based on the author’s own one-man performing version of the story.

There are operatic versions of The Pickwick Papers (Albert Coates), A Tale of Two Cities (Arthur Benjamin), and The Cricket on the Hearth (Alexander Mackenzie, Karl Goldmark, and Riccardo Zandonai), but A Christmas Carol has been far and away the most popular Dickensian subject for opera and musical-theater composers. A sure-fire staple of the novelist’s 453 paid readings, it was also his favorite performance piece and the centerpiece of his last reading, which he gave six months before his death in 1870 at age 58.

Subtitled “A Chamber Opera in Five Staves,” Bell’s 100-minute, intermission-less Carol retains the name Dickens gave the sections or chapters of his 1843 novella, but Callow’s libretto is highly selective when it comes to the author’s actual language. “God bless us, every one” is there, of course, but much is compressed, paraphrased, and rewritten. British expressions are Americanized (position becomes job, for example, and comforter becomes scarf), and so were accents here (Texas-born Morris’s diction was admirably clear, but he didn’t sound like he lives in Downton Abbey).

Simon Callow, actor and librettist-director of Bell's 'A Christmas Carol.'
Simon Callow, actor and librettist-director of Bell’s opera.

Morris told the story clad in a light-gray modern business suit. He didn’t do much in the way of differentiating the voices of the many characters in the tale, from three spirits to myriad adults (both male and female) and a passel of juvenile Cratchits. But then, that’s been a problem for singers ever since Schubert’s “Die Erlkönig,” which has four characters. Dickens describes Scrooge as “a grasping, covetous old sinner,” and pre-visitation Morris gave the central character a snarky nasality he dropped later on. But mostly the tenor relied on understated physicality (a different gait or stance, a few gestures) to convey character identity.

There certainly aren’t many markers in Scrooge’s vocal line. It consists mostly of yards and yards of slithery middle-voice parlando with busy support from the 15-member orchestra, here cogently led by Warren Jones. The score provides only some of the humanity and chills and especially the sentiment of the opera’s source material. The mood in the pit is aptly eerie in the first two “staves” as Scrooge heads home on a creepy Christmas Eve and encounters Marley’s ghost and the first didactic spirit.

Scrooge in bed awaiting one of the spirits.
An anxious Scrooge awaits one of the Christmas spirits.

The music gets considerably warmer and livelier when Scrooge invisibly relives the Fezziwigs’ rollicking Christmas party and visits the Cratchit home. Also, the mood is touching in the Tiny Tim scene and sunnier after Scrooge’s overnight transformation. But I didn’t hear many of the “varied extended avant-garde instrumental techniques” Bell speaks of in a program note, much less “the tarnished silver of antique Victoriana, the sepia melancholy of the childhood that caused Ebenezer to become the bitter man we know, or the iridescent wisps of the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

Bell also writes about “the joy of being able to create my own yuletide sound-world, a delight in itself, along with such ravishing moments as the slowly approaching dragging of Marley’s chains and the ominous,  all-pervading yet soundless foreboding of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.” I confess that on first hearing I had to take a lot of that on faith.

But the amount of effort and creativity it took to mount this short but challenging work was never in doubt. Callow has performed his own one-man Carol and written Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. His staging is fluid and inventive, with many striking stage pictures. Hauntingly treated to Mark McCullough’s mercurial lighting, British designer Laura Hopkins’ set is dominated by a long staircase that rotates and divides for visual variety. Scrooge’s bed and simple wooden chairs that graduate from tiny to giant are moved on and off the stage by eight stagehands clad head to toe in black. The chairs even dance giddily at Fezziwig’s party to represent the unseen merrymakers. A clock projected on the back wall announces the arrivals of the spirits, and a row of clocks pegged to international financial centers is an amusing if anachronistic addition to the brief scene in the Exchange where Scrooge conducts his business.

The Narrator weaves the famous yarn in Iain Bell's 'A Christmas Carol.'
The Narrator weaves the famous yarn in Iain Bell’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Morris has recently become a lifesaver when a replacement for other tenors is needed ASAP. He filled in for Ben Heppner and Gary Lehman in the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle in 2011. He took over for Ian Storey  in San Francisco’s Siegfried the same year and later spelled Heppner in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick in several houses. For this Christmas Carol, he replaced an indisposed Anthony Dean Griffey, for whom the work was written. When Morris appeared for his first solo bow, it’s understandable why he let out an exhausted “Whew!”

In A Christmas Carol, he sings nonstop, and the countless tightly packed notes must be very hard to pin down. Morris’ tenor was strong and steady if diffuse in the crucial mid-range, and a bit hoarse and constricted the few times the vocal line rose above the passaggio. His assured performance earned him a big curtain-call hug from the composer, who shared the long first-night ovation with Jones, Callow, Hopkins, and McCullough — and even the now-unmasked prop-shifters.

So, will this Christmas Carol pleasantly haunt other opera houses? You’ll have to ask the Spirit of Repertoire Yet to Come.

William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston.