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The House Without a Christmas Tree

Houston Grand Opera

In Review Houston House without a Christmas Tree lg 318
Megan Mikailovna Samarin (Carla Mae), Patricia Schuman and Lauren Snouffer in HGO’s House without a Christmas Tree
© Lynn Lane

BASED ON GAIL ROCK'S STORY and the 1972 movie of the same name, The House without a ChristmasTree, a new Houston Grand Opera production composed by Ricky Ian Gordon with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, offered the awkward combination of tear-jerking storytelling and eclectic but astringent music. The origin of this opera, seen on December 2, lies with the artistic director of HGO, Patrick Summers, who has admired the movie since his childhood and commissioned Gordon to make an opera of it. 

The House without a Christmas Tree tells the story of a young girl from a small Nebraska town, Addie Mills, sung by sweet-voiced, girlish soprano Lauren Snouffer. Addie’s widowed, melancholy father, sung by baritone Daniel Belcher, cannot bear having a Christmas tree, because it would remind him of his deceased wife, who died during the holidays shortly after giving birth to Addie. Encouraged by her Grandma Mills (soprano Patricia Schuman), Addie aches to celebrate the holiday with a tree. When Addie wins one in a school giveaway, her father angrily forbids her to keep it. Addie then anonymously donates it to a poor family down the street. Moved by his daughter’s spirit and generosity, the father buys a tree and reconciles with his rejoicing daughter. All of this is recalled by Addie as an adult, who now lives as a writer in New York City. Soprano Heidi Stober played the adult Addie, as well as the school teacher, Miss Thompson, and Addie’s mother, Helen, in flashbacks.

The performance, directed by James Robinson, deftly intermingled adult professionals in the leading roles with teenage non-professionals as Addie’s schoolmates—an HGO “Juvenile Chorus,” directed by Karen Reeves, which featured solid performances by Maximillian Macias as Billy Wild and Elisabeth Leone as Gloria Cott. Led by Bradley Moore, a chamber-sized HGO Orchestra—with the addition of piano, played by Jonathan Gmeinder—skillfully and sensitively picked its way through the detailed orchestration of Gordon’s score.

Gordon’s strength in this opera lies in his ability to compose a score that evokes a host of different settings and moods, sometimes in rapid succession. Thus the opening music efficiently establishes the bustling New York City life of the grown-up Addie and the wistful calm of the little-town-on-the-prairie childhood that she recalls. The effective rotating home interior, designed by Allen Moyer, and James Schuette’s period costumes detail a Midwestern small town from simpler times. Because this is a Christmas story, Gordon also included a few carols (“Silent Night” and “Gather ’Round the Christmas Tree,” which is his own composition) that in their quasi-Ivesian harmonization depict both the characters’ actual singing and the whirling stream of their emotions as they sing.

The drawback of this opera, however, is the awkward juxtaposition of a homespun story and a nimbly heterogeneous but excessively busy score. Except for the carols and an important moment of a long-ago promise newly remembered, this is not a score of hummable tunes. Neither does it develop signal moments that might lay bare and underscore the dramatic turning points—for instance, the father’s catharsis and change of heart, or Addie’s wonder and delight. Gordon instead designs the lines for seeming rhetorical effect by having the singers veer upward for emphasis. But this is overdone, and the largely through-composed, arioso text-setting of this opera results in sameness. Even “Promise me,” the tune associated with a promise made by the father to his wife before she died, flits by without establishing its momentous significance. This is, in sum, an expertly crafted and well-performed opera, but one that lacks dramatic potency.  —Gregory Barnett 

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