Saturday, December 20, 2014

A New Christmas Carol

Photo by Lynn Lane from the Houstonia Magazine website; Jay Hunter Morris as the narrator in Houston Grand Opera's A Christmas Carol.

You wouldn't think there were any new ways to present A Christmas Carol, but of course there are. I've been aware of a one-man version performed by Patrick Stewart in New York and London upon occasion (what I wouldn't give to see that!), but I hadn't been aware until recently that Dickens himself used to present the tale in one-man performances. And it certainly wouldn't have occurred to me that someone adapt it as a one-man chamber opera. But Houston Grand Opera is doing all kinds of new things these days, so on Friday night we saw the world premiere production of A Christmas Carol by composer Iain Bell and librettist Simon Callow. The role of the narrator was sung by tenor Jay Hunter Morris; he is singing the part for eight performances in all, and will be spelled in two additional performances by Kevin Ray. What a feat of stamina to do this role even once, singing alone for ninety straight minutes!

One aspect of this production I loved was the set, which consisted primarily of a staircase with a door (and occasionally a window) at the top, and a white-canopied bed that appeared during the scenes that took place in Scrooge's bedchamber. The staircase was made of segments that could be moved together or alone by the crew of actors/stagehands who were dressed entirely in black so that they remained almost completely unobtrusive. Geometrically minimalist chairs, constructed and placed in ways to deliberately exaggerate perspective, were very effective, and when the Ghost of Christmas Present points out the starving children who are Want and Ignorance, two almost-invisible figures write those words graffiti-style in dripping white paint on the side of the black staircase. The set pieces were moved just often enough to keep the show dynamic without going overboard. In fact, the only visual elements I would have changed were Marley-as-doorknocker, which looked odd, and Scrooge's costume itself. He wore a suit and suspenders of (to me) indeterminate period, when I would have liked just a hint of the Victorian there, which I think would have worked even with the stark set.

In terms of the music itself, I thought the use of bells and chimes in the right places was extremely evocative, but there were more times when the music didn't make sense to me than times it did. I enjoyed Morris's overall performance, however. His face and hands were particularly expressive, and his diction was amazing -- I don't think there's ever been a time when I've needed the surtitles less. But I did have trouble understanding whether and how the vocal thread was connected to the orchestral music. I asked my husband if he thought some formal education is required to appreciate atonal work; he said he thought it was more a matter of taste, but I do still think the majority of listeners find atonal music difficult to parse compared to melodious work. I would like to hear the orchestral music alone to see how I feel about it without being distracted by the vocal thread, which just seemed random to me at times.

I also have to admit that A Christmas Carol is also a story I've always struggled with a bit. I enjoy Scrooge's transformation as much as anyone, but I often wonder how genuine it is when it often seems that the simple sight of his own gravestone scares him into being nice. Since he's still going to die, I'm sure the point is the difference between dying alone and unmourned versus loved and missed, but that does not always come across completely, and it can be argued that he is buying that future posthumous love. However, in this production I felt like his transformation was a little more gradual over the visits of all three ghosts versus the flip-a-switch version we see in some portrayals of the story, and hence a little more believable. In many ways, though, I don't think that this particular method of portraying the story is necessarily as effective as straight dramatic interpretation.

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