If “Three Decembers” is indeed Lucy Thrasher’s last leading role in opera, she leaves the crowd wanting more.
At Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s premiere Friday night at Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Weld Hall, the soprano made the troublesome Madeline Mitchell something of a sympathetic figure. Thrasher has appeared in 30 of the troupe’s titles and while Mitchell may not be the most challenging or high profile vocal part, but Thrasher plays the role with brightness and charm.
Mitchell is an aging actress more concerned about her status as a working actress than her grown children. It’s their interactions -- or lack of - over the holiday seasons in 1986, ’96 and 2006 that we see how strained the starlet’s family is.
It doesn’t take long to get the picture. In the opening number, as Charlie and his sister Bea read each other Madeline’s Christmas letter over the phone, he states that their mother’s greatest role was as absentee parent.
It’s that mix of comedic barbs and bittersweet passages that make Jake Heggie’s work--with libretto by Gene Scheer -- such a remarkable piece. There are only the three roles, but the character of the children’s late father looms over all on stage as does Charlie’s dying partner, the AIDS epidemic and Bea’s unfaithful husband.
Madeline may crave the spotlight, but the roles of the children steal the show. As Charlie, Robert Wesley Mason delivers an impassioned response to Madeline’s careless Christmas letter in the first act and the baritone’s aria is a heartbreaker. It’s no surprise to see that he played the role last year for Nashville Opera. Lucky for FM Opera fans, he’ll be back in April to play the toreador, Escamillo, in “Carmen”.
On the other side of the stage, Anne Jennifer Nash is wonderfully expressive as always, but in Bea she creates a fully-rounded, loving character who has been betrayed by those closest to her. By the end of the show, she’s had a significant change of view and Nash shows that her acting is only by surpassed by her impressive soprano.
When Madeline says at the end of the 90-minute show that, “these two will be alright,” it might as well be Thrasher speaking to the bright future of the rising stars.
For her part, Thrasher plays Madeline with the necessary determination, but also a wink and a nod to her last moments in the spotlight. Thrasher has said she intends to do more cabaret sets and she shows her great feel for musicals when Madeline gets a role on Broadway. Thrasher’s delivery of that tune is nostalgic and wistful, but a reminder to live in the moment.
A scrappy chamber opera piece, director Austin Regan makes smart use of limited space on stage, projecting pictures in lieu of rotating scenery and Thrasher has to change outfits in front of the crowd. Sets are changed by stage hands in a way that makes them part of the show, occasionally interacting with actors. He does a lot with limited resources for his hometown directing debut and hopefully he’ll show what he can do with a bigger budget sometime in the future.
There is no orchestra pit in Weld Hall, so the one misstep of the production is the necessary placement of two pianos -- the only instruments in the show -- to the side of the stage. At times the playing of conductor Cody Martin and Hong Liang Andre Ng overpower the vocalists.
No matter, Madeline Mitchell won’t be overwhelmed by a piano and neither is Thrasher. The singer gets the last word in “Three Decembers” and while opera fans will miss her voice, she gives them a memorable final performance.
Thrasher takes her last bow with today’s matinee, which starts at 2 p.m.
If you go
What: “Three Decembers”
When: 2 p.m., Sunday
Where: Weld Hall, MSUM
Info: Tickets for this mature audiences show are $30, https://www.fmopera.org, (701) 239-4558