Star Gazing

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I should be pretty jaded already having seen many, many major performing artists live onstage in my lifetime.  However, there are still those increasingly rare instances when ineffable, magnetic star power just sweeps me, breathlessly, dizzyingly, off my tiny Asian feet.  There were the nights, for example, of seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Minneapolis Orpheum Theater in the mid-1990s, or Dame Judi Dench in Amy’s View on Broadway, or, more recently, Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Kennedy Center.  Last Wednesday night, at the Harris Theater, seeing the celebrated American opera superstar Frederica von Stade, in one of her last staged opera performances in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, the last production for the season of the essential Chicago Opera Theater, was one of those times.  Von Stade is luminous, riveting, wonderfully graceful, radiating never-ending concentric circles of charisma as Madeline Mitchell, a celebrated Broadway actress with fractured relationships with her two children, Charlie, whose partner is dying of AIDS, and Bea, who has turned to alcohol to escape her troubled marriage.  Von Stade, both through her impeccable musicality and her terrific acting chops, is able to make Maddy, seemingly monstrous on paper, both maddening and sympathetic, a truly multi-layered characterization, closer to the best of musical theater performance, in my opinion, than operatic performance (which tends to be more about the singing than the acting).  She is also very generous in her scenes with the star-in-the-making Matthew Worth (seen last season at COT in Britten’s Owen Wingrave, which I’m now kicking myself for missing), who gives Charlie a serious dose of sexy heartwrench, and Sara Jakubiak, who infuses Bea with steely, quiet rage. 

Gene Scheer’s libretto, based on a very slight Terence McNally short-play about three Chrismases in the life of Maddie and her children told through letters and phone calls,  is admittedly sashimi-slice thin, and plays like a LOGO TV movie in parts.  But with Jake Heggie’s music (Heggie, by the way, plays one of the two pianos in the 11 person orchestra situated onstage) and the trio of powerhouse performances, some of the scenes come off so heartfelt and touching that I, for one, couldn’t stop tears from welling up in my eyes (seriously).  I especially love von Stade’s solo number “Daybreak”, a Broadway-style number reminiscing about youth and romance, warmly and simply sung; Worth’s affecting number while packing up his dead partner’s belongings; and Worth and Jakubiak’s snappy, showtopping, designer name-dropping duet about Maddy’s shoes.  Some Chicago opera critics have scoffed at Three Decembers, implying that it is not “important enough” to be von Stade’s final calling card and Heggie’s follow-up to his recent critical triumph with his new work Moby Dick at the Houston Opera, using words like “cabaret-style fluff” and “pseudo-Sondheim” and “mundane”, delivered with such sharpness that you’d think Heggie, von Stade, and COT were responsible for the Gulf oil spill.  Well, as my dear blog readers know, I don’t really give a rat’s ass about what critics say- I write as a paying arts and culture lover to other paying arts and culture lovers.  Please go and see Three Decembers at the COT – it is entertaining, vibrant, emotionally accessible, and a fine showcase for von Stade.  People (well, Chicago critics) just have to stop getting their panties in a bunch; opera doesn’t need to be “important” or “serious” or “heavy” to be compulsively watchable.  Especially if you’re stretching your arts consumption dollar to pay for it.

Three Decembers still has two more performances, tonight, May 14, at 7:30 pm, and Sunday, May 16, at 3:00 pm.  You can catch it at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, the home of Chicago Opera Theater, 205 E. Randolph St.


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