Tuesday, December 16, 2008

THREE DECEMBERS, followed by Three Courses!

My Christmas gift from Gretchen this year was attending THREE DECEMBERS and then dinner at Bay Wolf!!

San Francisco Opera presented THREE DECEMBERS (Last Acts) (composer: Jake Heggie; libretto: Gene Scheer, based on a play by Terrence McNally; conductor: Patrick Summers; director: Leonard Foglia), a new piece by Jake Heggie (DEAD MAN WALKING), which premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in March of this year, featuring its world premiere cast: Frederica von Stade, Keith Phares and Kristin Clayton. Yes, it is only a cast of three in this chamber opera which would probably work better on an Off-Broadway stage than it does in a place as cavernous as Zellerbach Hall, in Berkeley. However, since Heggie is considered a "modern operatic composer", his sentimental, little piece is relegated to the massive halls, voices and expectations of the opera houses around the country.

The drama is about the relationship between a Broadway musical star (Frederica von Stade) and her two adult children. Essentially, if you took "Glamorous Life" from Stephen Sondheim's "A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC" and extended it for two hours, you would have this opera. In other words, the plotting is slight, so there is an increased pressure for characterization. However, the libretto tends to focus on a lot of off-stage events and exposition, in which the three characters literally narrate via the device of the mother's Christmas letters. The opening duet in which brother and sister are on the phone with each other, singing the first letter, straight out, is an exceptionally ineffective way to launch what should be an intensive three-part character study. It insists that the performers infuse the words of their mother with their attitudes about her and musically mocks someone we have not met or heard from yet. In other words, the audience must begin to make assumptions during the opening moments, instead of concentrating on the characterizations and the musical structure. The piece does not really begin to take life until late in the first act, in which the brother and sister have a beautiful duet about their father on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The second act, comprised of two scenes, each ten years apart, work much more effectively, as Heggie is no longer bound to the family's emotional exposition. The "shoe duet" (for lack of a better description), in which the children mock their mother's shoe-shopping-as-therapy habit, is delightful and oddly reminiscent of another Sondheim piece ("A Little Priest"), and von Stade is given a gorgeous lullaby to perform. There is much to like in the score. However, it never crosses that line of "ecstasy" that feels necessary in opera, or musical theater in general. In other words, to perhaps over simplify the case, the mother never has the "Momma Rose Moment"! Though there is emotional resolution, which is sentimentally well done, the cathartic climax (when the truth about the father is revealed) comes as yet another piece of exposition. The mother is only given the opportunity to encapsulate why she did what she did, so her eventual capitulation seems unsatisfactory, since she is not allowed to fully express the emotional toll it took on her and her relationship with her children. Regardless of the many beautiful moments within the work, it just can not withstand the scrutiny of the particular arena it has been placed and the dramatic demands that are required of it.

However, the requirements of our dinner at Bay Wolf Cafe' and Restaurant were successfully met! The avocado, pink grapefruit and roasted beet salad with arugula and creamy anise dressing, which both Gretchen and I had, was incredible! I could have stopped there! However, I moved on to potato gnocchi with butternut squash, and Gretchen had the crusted salmon and risotto cakes (which I had an extra side of!). The gnocchi was rich and, for lack of another term, beefy! The desert featured eggnog ice cream sandwiches! Gretchen had the chocolate bouche. She also ordered a half bottle of Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc), which topped things off, nicely! I LOVE Bay Wolf!!

Maxxxxx says
re THREE DECEMBERS: "Dooby dooby doo-oooo"
re BAY WOLF: "Breakfast?!"

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