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‘Three Decembers’ not typical opera but it delivers moving drama

Opera fans accustomed to a steady diet of classics by Mozart, Puccini and the like are in for a bit of a shock when they show up for the Atlanta Opera’s latest production, “Three Decembers,” the final show of the 2014-15 season. The show, running at the Alliance Theatre through May 31, is about as far in style, scale, setting and tone from the company’s typical fare of warhorses and repertory standards as it’s possible to get.

That’s not to say that opera fans won’t be pleased. For those who are up for the journey, “Three Decembers” offers likable, tuneful music that supports a moving drama, ultimately offering an intense and intimate portrait of a family’s dysfunction. And in the end, those who find that contemporary opera will just never be their thing will, at the very least, be pleased that the company keeps this little departure short, sweet and painless. “Three Decembers” clocks in at just under an hour and a half with no intermission, the blink of an eye in opera terms.

“Three Decembers” tells the story of aging star Madeline Mitchell (Theodora Hanslowe) and the difficulty she has in maintaining both her career and her relationship with her adult children Charlie (Jesse Blumberg) and Beatrice (Jennifer Black). As the title suggests, we witness the family in various vignettes across three Decembers, each a decade apart: The three parts of the opera are set in 1986, 1996 and 2006. The music for the 2008 show is by contemporary composer Jake Heggie, and the libretto is based on a play by Broadway playwright Terrence McNally.

As Beatrice tells us in the show’s final scene, “It wasn’t always easy being her children.” Though her love for her children is clear, Madeline is monumentally self-absorbed, ablaze with her love for the theater (and the attention it brings) but often darkly consumed by self-doubt. Hanslowe’s excellent performance never descends into easy camp, which would seemingly be a danger of the role: Vocally and dramatically, she connects to the little moments of the character’s genuine humanity.

In one of the show’s most charming and revealing scenes, Charlie and Beatrice prepare to accompany their mother to the Tony Awards, delving into her closet ostensibly to pick out something for Beatrice, but donning pieces of her outrageously glamorous outfits to mock what their mother’s acceptance speech might sound like, a scene the two singers dive into with a compelling sense of fun, but always conveying there are darker, long-standing resentments underneath.

The focus of “Three Decembers” is pretty tight: There are only three onstage characters, so the three principal performers have to carry a lot.

Fortunately, the singers here (all of them, along with much of the artistic crew that created the show, are making their Atlanta Opera debuts) are up to the task. and it’s often surprising how moving a few simple lines of dialogue can be when they’re backed by Heggie’s straightforward but lush musical brushstrokes. Heggie’s music remains accessible throughout; the show often resembles contemporary musical theater more than grand opera, though the voices and the composer’s sophisticated use of the music from a small chamber ensemble to delineate various unspoken emotional undercurrents remain thoroughly operatic.

Set designer Laura Jellinek likewise does a lot with a little, giving us a few simple, indicatory backdrops: three homes, a dressing room, a funeral chapel and even the Golden Gate Bridge for a walk on a blustery day.

“Three Decembers” is sung in English, and director Emma Griffin does not include supertitles above the stage. The main advantage of this is that the show gains in immediacy: The contemporary narrative and the venue of the Alliance give the show a playlike sense of directness and emotional intimacy, qualities that could easily be marred by printed supertitles. The disadvantage is that, though the text is in English, it’s easy to lose a line here and there. I’m one of those theatergoers who hates to miss even the tiniest detail, and I often did: I’m still not entirely certain I followed the progression through the years accurately.

Still, in the end, “Three Decembers” offers an intriguing and moving portrait of a family’s struggle to connect with one another across the years, as well as a promising glimpse at the Atlanta Opera’s latest move toward occasionally placing smaller opera productions in new venues.

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