CHATHAM, N.Y. — On a less hot and humid day, driving on a dusty dirt road through orchard vistas to Chatham’s sweet, useful new performance space might spark more interest in how Jake Heggie’s Broadway-inflected Three Decembers would fare in this pastoral scene.
PS21/Performance Spaces for the 21st Century, a combination open-air and black-box theater, is the latest of several small performance venues in and around the Berkshires that have sprung up over the years. The huge summer presence of the Tanglewood Music Festival, which draws performers and audiences from all over, motivates the expansion.
The one-act opera from 2008, first seen at Houston Grand Opera but now presented by the plucky Berkshire Opera Festival in yet another locale for the company, runs an hour and a half without intermission. But there was a half-hour delay, waiting for an ambulance to remove an audience member who hit his head falling backward from the aisle steps. Three Decembers became two sweaty hours in a stifling heat wave, the unmasked audience seated close together.
Nothing was anybody’s fault, patience was requested, and warm bottled water was passed out, but how we longed to hear this in December — any December.
Inspired by a script called Some Christmas Letters, by Terrence McNally, the playwright who wrote about AIDS and died of Covid, Three Decembers is what’s called an intimate chamber opera: three characters, three segments, and an orchestra of about a dozen, including percussion and two pianos. Christopher James Ray, a protégé of Carlisle Floyd, was the conductor, and Gene Scheer wrote the sensitive libretto.
The production was fortunate in its deceptively simple but nimble staging, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the foggy background. It was also lucky to be directed by Beth Greenberg, known for her many years of staging at New York City Opera.
Mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala dominated the role of the narcissistic Broadway actress Madeline Mitchell, first created by Frederica von Stade. Monica Dewey and Theo Hoffman, as her grown children Bea and Charlie, struggling with emotional problems while comforting and cavorting with each other, had wonderful voices and clear diction, but the white-haired audience would have been grateful for supertitles, usually expected in today’s opera.
Constants in the three Christmases portrayed — 1986, 1996, and 2006 — are Bea’s drinking and marital problems, Charlie’s boyfriend whom Mom can’t accept even before he gets AIDS, both children’s yearning for their father, who died when they were small, and their persistent complaints that they don’t get enough attention from Mom. She claims that her brilliant career without a husband is what supports her family.
Heggie writes eloquently for the female voice, bringing out its juice, and he can put out an attractive, lilting Broadway-style waltz. While lots of operas have implausible plots, however, this one feels dated, like Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, though it mercifully omits talk of psychoanalysis. Princess phones are prominently displayed. AIDS ostracism, problems with famous moms, and suicide as a family humiliation are not the scandals they used to be.
Stylish outfits are a high point: People change clothes onstage, which has a full clothes rack in the center. And they admire the mink and sequins in a full-length mirror or at a dressing table.
The final scene is at Mom’s funeral (she “died quietly in her sleep,” no reason given), where the grown children eulogize her at a podium. Then, having apparently achieved some sort of equilibrium, they stroll off meditatively and her spirit appears, in a stunning black sparkly dress, to defend herself some more.
Advancing downstage, she says, “Isn’t life simply grand? I’m so awfully glad I showed up for it,” which brings home her absence of empathy for her children’s sufferings. “You’ve been a wonderful audience,” she concludes, before relaxing into an easy chair and ordering, “Curtain!”