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Virginia Opera’s “Three Decembers” is a January Treat

Words by Nathan Jacques. Images by Ben Schill Photography.

While “Three Decembers” opened on the Virginia Opera stage seemingly a month late (only in title), this performance would feel right at home on any stage at any time of year.

Based on the unpublished Terrence McNally play “Some Christmas Letters”, John Heggie’s opera (with libretto by Gene Scheer) provides three poignant snapshots of a strained relationship between a mother and her two children, each framed in a new decade.

Tony award-winning actress Karen Ziemba plays the role of Madeline (“Maddie”), a renowned American actress who finds herself burdened with the herculean task of raising two children alone after her husband passes away. Maddie’s children, Beatrice and Charlie, played by Cecilia Violetta López and Efraín Solís respectively, are fated to grapple with the AIDS epidemic, death, deceit, the faint memories of their father’s character, and the emotional turmoil of their single mother’s perpetual absence. This cast never misses a beat, each emotion on display feels raw and (most importantly) authentic. My hat is off the cast and direction they were given.

“Three Decembers” certainly sports a miniscule cast, but don’t be fooled – Virginia Opera’s production, directed by Lawrence Edelson and conducted by maestro Adam Turner, possesses the heart, the finesse, and the spectacle one expects from Virginia Opera’s productions. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra also provides an indelible musical backdrop, supplementing an already incredible auditory experience.

As mentioned before, each of the three parts of “Three Decembers” is framed by the decade in which the conversation takes place. The set and light design lends itself well to this idea; a “dynamic” proscenium, comprised of empty photo frames, shifts to surround each encounter. The empty frames remind of what could have been; frames are meant to hold beloved photos of family and friends. The lack thereof mirrors the goings on in the Mitchell family – the “what could have been" if they needed not wrestle the metaphorical demons they inherited. For this superb blend of artistry, the creative team, comprised of scenic and costume designer Court Watson, lighting designer Josh Epstein, with makeup and wigs from James McGough, deserve the utmost congratulations.

While the plot of “Three Decembers” seemingly comes to a questionable close, one must remember that real life is not always “cut and dry”. Sometimes, things end messily and without resolution or closure. Those left behind must learn to live with the aftermath and the regrets that ensue. Art does imitate life, after all, and “Three Decembers” puts a very real family dynamic on display - one that, unfortunately, many may find uncomfortable familiarity in.

“Three Decembers” has already run its course in Norfolk and Fairfax, but performances remain in Richmond, VA.

Carpenter Theater at the Dominion Energy Center, Richmond, Virginia

Friday, February 11, 2022, at 8:00 pm

Sunday, February 13, 2022, at 2:30 pm

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