A lively cast boosts HGO’s musically slender “Christmas Tree”

Fri Dec 01, 2017 at 4:23 pm
By Steven Brown

Daniel Belcher and Lauren Snouffer in Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The House without a Christmas Tree” at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

Christmas may be the happiest time of the year, but Christmas stories have long found fertile ground in despair. It’s a Wonderful Life, the Hollywood classic that Houston Grand Opera shepherded to the stage last year in a new opera by Jake Heggie, centers on a man who’s ready to kill himself.

Yet another tormented soul is at the crux of HGO’s latest Christmas commission, Ricky Ian Gordon’s The House Without a Christmas Tree.

The one-act opera, which had its world premiere Thursday night, focuses on Addie Mills, a teenager in small-town Nebraska. She longs to have a Christmas tree in her living room, just as other families do. But her father James refuses. Christmas trees remind him of Addie’s mother Helen, who died soon after she gave birth to Addie. One of James’ last memories of Helen is of her trimming the tree–a scene the opera shows in flashback.

Grandma Mills, James’ mother and the third member of the household, tries to make him think more of his daughter, and she also tries to explain his feelings to Addie. Dad still resists. But when he brings the family home from the school Christmas pageant, which features Addie as an angel, she and Grandma behold a Christmas tree towering in the living room. Dad has come around.

Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek surround the story, which began as a 1972 made-for TV movie, with opening and closing scenes of the grownup Adelaide, now a writer in New York City. So as soon as the opera steps back to Addie’s 1950s Nebraska home–complete with console TV, Grandma’s sewing machine and an old-timey refrigerator–it takes on an air of nostalgia.

The music’s cozy glow fits that homespun atmosphere hand-in-glove. If anything, The House Without a Christmas Tree is a little too cozy. Gordon and Vavrek mostly keep the bitter heartache of Addie’s father’s at arm’s length, with the result that James doesn’t feel as rounded or compelling a character as Addie.

Gordon’s most prominent musical strands in this one-act score are a jaunty Christmas carol and a gentle waltz tune that Addie’s dad and late mother sing in their flashback.

When we see Addie with her schoolmates–making fun of boys with her best pal Carla Mae, for instance–the music takes brighter, perkier turns. And her father’s outbursts as Addie prods him about the tree inject some dramatic bite.

But Gordon’s score always brings back the mellower tones quickly. Yet as the opera unfolds, a sameness creeps into the music, which becomes a bit monotonous even over the short 70-minute span.

The sincerity and spirit of soprano Lauren Snouffer’s Addie almost overcame that on Thursday. The silvery freshness of Snouffer’s voice accounted for part of the appeal, but not all.

The soprano also brought to the role a smart-aleck edge of a precocious teenager telling off boys, the mirth of a girl having fun with her best pal and the sweetness of a daughter pleading with her father. As a recent alumnus of the HGO Studio training program, Snouffer isn’t that far removed from Addie’s age, which helped her dramatic credibility as a teenager.

In the role of Addie’s father, baritone Daniel Belcher sang with a bite and impact that let James’ exasperation show, as his daughter’s pleas for a tree unknowingly provoke his memories. Yet he also brought a mellow, tender feel to the flashback duet with Addie’s mother.

Gordon and Vavrek have Grandma Mills relate more about her son’s sad inner feelings than he ever does. And, even though a climactic ensemble brings back Addie’s mother as a sort of doppelganger alongside Addie, the opera never tells us what went inside Addie’s father that led to his change of heart.

Soprano Patricia Schuman cut a compassionate figure as Addie’s Grandma. Her demeanor was calm, her voice steady. But Schuman’s singing hardly ever changed in color or tone, even when Grandma pulled matriarchal rank on her son in the face of his harshness to his daughter.

Grandma’s descriptions of her son’s feelings weren’t very affecting, but that was more the fault of the score and libretto failing to make second-hand emotion hit home.

Soprano Heidi Stober, who played Cleopatra in HGO’s recent Julius Caesar, did an adroit turn in three roles. She was vibrant and engaging as the adult Adelaide as well as the young Addie’s schoolteacher, and she gave Addie’s mother an aura of softness.

Mezzo-soprano Megan Mikailovna Samarin made Addie’s friend Carla Mae another spirited girl. And tenor Maximillian Macias, a member of Bauer Family High School Voice Studio, brought clear, youthful tones to the role of Billy Wild, a classmate who turns out to be sweet on Addie.

Even in the sprawling HGO Resilience Theater, the liveliness and humanity of director James Robinson’s staging came through. Though Allen Moyer’s set was clearly designed for a smaller theater, its revolving platform encompassed an entire little house–living room, kitchen, two bedrooms and bath–and helped keep the action visually alive.

But the vast temporary space in Houston’s convention center took more of a toll musically on Gordon’s chamber opera than on the two grand operas that HGO staged there this fall. Unlike those productions, this one relied on amplifying the voices, which we heard coming from speakers in the ceiling, not from the stage.

The 18-player orchestra, led by conductor Bradley Moore, flanked the proscenium. Yet even though, the musicians  were near the audience, the curtains behind them seemed to swallow up their sound. The result was the orchestra sounded like a distant accompaniment in the background, not an active participant in the musical storytelling.

Houston Grand Opera’s production of The House Without a Christmas Tree runs through December 17 in the HGO Resilience Theater, George R. Brown Convention Center. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737

One Response to “A lively cast boosts HGO’s musically slender “Christmas Tree””

  1. Posted Dec 03, 2017 at 5:26 pm by Margaret

    You are incorrect about the amplification of voices. The singers in Julius Caesar also wore microphones, while the performers in La Traviata did not. It was impossible to hear the cast of La Traviata. HGO is learning and improving as this season goes along under very difficult circumstances. The placement of the orchestra for House was a great improvement over that of La Traviata–behind the stage. And the additions of seat cushions for the audience for this production shows that HGO is continuing to try to improve the experience for everyone.

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