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Where is Tiny Tim when you need him? Houston Grand Opera's one-man A Christmas Carol falls flat

Houston Grand Opera's one-man version of A Christmas Carol falls flat

“Spirit, no more. Why do you delight to torture me?” sang Jay Hunter Morris as Narrator, the only character in Iain Bell and Simon Callow’s new opera A Christmas Carol. “Take me home, haunt me no longer!” he continued.

As I listened and watched, it seemed as if he could read my very thoughts.

“No more, no more” was all I could think.

 As the inaugural work of the company’s new series of holiday-themed operas, it is a particularly striking disappointment. 

On Friday night, I simply couldn’t wait for this cheerless opera to conclude. Houston Grand Opera’s latest premiere is a kind of aural torture, and at only 90 minutes, it shouldn’t be so difficult to sit through. As the inaugural work of the company’s new series of holiday-themed operas, it is a particularly striking disappointment.

This is a shame, because Charles Dickens’ beloved novella lends itself quite naturally to operatic adaptation. Slovak composer Ján Cikker wrote Mister Scrooge in the late 1950s, Scottish composer Thea Musgrave offered her own version in the late 1970s, and as recently as 1998, American composer Jon Deak gave us The Passion of Scrooge (or A Christmas Carol) for baritone and chamber orchestra. With its emphasis on introspection, ghosts, and with its uplifting message of redemption, Dickens’ story works perfectly in the operatic realm.

I was excited to hear that HGO wanted to commission another original setting, but Bell and Callow’s version is unlikely to become an opera audiences will return to time and again. It should be said, as well, especially audiences seeking holiday entertainment.

From its sudden opening (there is no overture), the whole thing is Jay Hunter Morris shouting over an insistently dissonant orchestra. There are no arias and no formal melodies, and the staging is sparsely dull.

Budgetary dream

I understand the choice of employing only one singer. It’s a budgetary dream, I suppose, even when A Christmas Carol offers so many opportunities for rich ensemble and choral singing. If you want to know what a chorus of ghosts sounds like, check out Meredith Monk’s classic Atlas, another commission by HGO. You won’t find anything like that here, however.

Let’s be clear: anyone who has read my opera reviews knows that my tastes are hardly conservative. I adore traditional opera and grew up with it. I also love numerous operas composed in an atonal or serial style. These would include Alban Berg’s Lulu, Thomas Ades’ stunning Powder Her Face, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s epic cycle Licht, and Louis Andriessen’s dreamy Writing to Vermeer.

 He spends most of his time running up and down an occasionally rotating staircase, and now and then he sits on some white-frame chairs that look borrowed from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 

I have no problem listening to a lengthy, dissonant vocal work. Bell’s opera, however, shows little musical imagination. It is neither as wildly idiosyncratic as Powder Her Face, for example, nor as deeply structured as Lulu. Often, Bell’s Narrator sings whole sentences on one or two notes, or he leaps to an unpleasant interval to emphasize some particular word. The prosody is awkward, suggesting that Bell does not understand the natural rhythm of English phrases, or that he just didn’t think carefully when he set them to music.

At best, it seems like Bell is trying to imitate Benjamin Britten’s late chamber operas. He doesn’t succeed.

Set and costume designer Laura Hopkins has dressed Morris in a grey business suit, necktie, white shirt and plain white pocket square. I cannot image why. He spends most of his time running up and down an occasionally rotating staircase, and now and then he sits on some white-frame chairs that look borrowed from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

There are some archetypal objects, such as clocks and flowers, and in perhaps the most embarrassingly bad moment of the evening, a sagging cloth Christmas tree kind of creeps out of one corner of the stage. This production is truly nothing to look at.

Too much to bear

It is perplexing to contemplate how this commission emerged, and how it was realized. At what point did the composer’s score arrive, and what did the artistic team make of it? Did everyone think this was really the best work to begin an important new initiative in Houston? Did anyone contemplate telling Bell it was unsatisfactory? Didn’t anyone find it boring?

Opera fans who attended last season’s A Coffin in Egypt might consider this a situation of déjà vu – another HGO modest staging of a 90-minute solo work, musically forgettable and unlikely to find a place in the greater opera repertory. At least Coffin was a star vehicle. We had an artist the stature of Frederica von Stade to hold on to. Jan Hunter Morris works hard here in Bell and Callow’s A Christmas Carol, but in the end his unrelenting vocalizing becomes just too much to bear for 90 minutes.  

Houston Grand Opera HGO premier of A Christmas Carol December 2014
HGO's A Christmas Carol shows little imagination. HGOpera/YouTube
Jay Hunter Morris in Houston Grand Opera production of A Christmas Carol
Jay Hunter Morris was the entire cast. Courtesy photo