HOUSTON: A Christmas Carol
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In Review > North America

A Christmas Carol

Houston Grand Opera

In Review A Christmas Carol lg 315
Morris in A Christmas Carol at HGO
© Lynn Lane 2015

Intended as a gripping narrative against the backdrop of a stark depiction of a Dickensian world, Houston Grand Opera’s commission of an opera version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol, by Simon Callow (libretto and director) and Iain Bell (music), resulted in a disappointingly unimaginative and uninspiring setting of a classic (seen Dec. 5). In this work for a solo singer (a Narrator who also plays all of the parts), astringency persisted throughout, so that moods, characters, places, even the solo singer’s words — in sum, all of the details of the story — were blunted and blurred beneath a musical wash of nearly undifferentiated bleakness. If Bell’s music suggested the broad outlines of Ebenezer Scrooge’s world — joylessness, misery, horror — it missed so much else in Dickens’s story, seeming to suppress its comic moments and diminish its joyous ending. And where musical passages did underscore specific events, the effect was hit-and-miss: Bell created a moving accompaniment to Bob Cratchit’s mourning of Tiny Tim, but he repeatedly ground out insipid waltz-like music for the happy or festive moments such as Fezziwig’s ball and nephew Fred’s party.

The set and costume design only added to a sense of missed opportunity in this work. The set featured freestanding stairs that could be rotated and folded to create different spaces throughout the story. These were cleverly utilitarian but suggested no specific time or place. Likewise, the Narrator wore a generic-looking suit with a loosened tie, which evoked no era or person in particular. Against this blank canvas, however, the added stage details of a trapezoidal, lopsided doorway, bed and window frame; garishly illuminated, hand-drawn clock faces; and irregularly shaped (and sized) chairs made a stab at conjuring the story’s fantastical spirit world. But the effect was cartoonish and, with the appearance of some grotesquely enlarged props — a cup and a floating violin — inadvertently reminiscent of a painting by Dalí. And some details of the staging were simply mysterious: what were those light, fluffy things dropping onto the stage during the reminiscence of Scrooge’s estrangement from his fiancée? Was that bit of heavy green cloth protruding briefly from the wings meant to represent the Ghost of Christmas Present? Probably so, but then why was he — or rather, a part of him — shown when no one else was?

The audience experience, then, was to pick out Dickens’s text from a grim musical haze amid the visual distractions of a vaguely surrealist and sometimes incomprehensible staging. Well, it was not exactly Dickens’s text: for those who know the novel well, the libretto was a mixed bag, sometimes preserving the effective passages and sometimes altering and dulling them. When he awakens on Christmas morning and asks a little boy about the prize turkey hanging in a shop nearby, Callow’s Scrooge specifies its size: “the one as big as you.” Dickens’s Scrooge never utters those words. Rather, it’s the boy who asks, “The one as big as me?” to the delight of the mirthful Scrooge. It’s a small detail, but it shows so effectively and endearingly how the transformed Scrooge now finds joy everywhere. It was a pity to lose that moment.

Although no performance can fix a flawed work, the execution of the HGO Christmas Carol was nonetheless a good one: as the Narrator, tenor Jay Hunter Morris — a relatively late replacement for Anthony Dean Griffey, who withdrew from the project for health reasons in October — played the many roles of the story nimbly and assuredly. The musicians of the chamber-sized HGO Orchestra performed with precision under the direction of Warren Jones, in his HGO conducting debut. All of which is to say that they did the best they could, delivering an able performance of a poor composition. spacer 


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