Houston Grand Opera has tried commissioning the perfect Christmas opera for years, despite how creating new music that also checks the box of holiday cheer is a goal at odds with itself. Nostalgia and the modern rarely mix. But this year, HGO leans into the sentiment of the season with The House Without a Christmas Tree, a one-act world premiere with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Royce Vavrek.
The last three years of holiday work has been hit-and-miss. In the atonal nightmare of 2014, the world premiere of A Christmas Carol (also a one-act chamber opera with music by Iain Bell, libretto by Simon Callow) drained Dickens’ beloved story of all cheer and drove much of HGO’s audience out within the first fifteen minutes. But in 2015, HGO stuck with a 2003 gem, Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, which shimmered with childhood magic and imagination. Then in 2016, HGO took a shot at another world premiere, an adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. A collaboration between composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, it was visually dark and musically disjointed, patterned by silver-doored voids that haunt me still.
Based on Gail Rock’s book (but perhaps more commonly as seen in the 1972 television movie), The House Without a Christmas Tree is an 80-minute soul-warming recipe of mittens, snowball fights, caroling, secret Santa gift exchanges, friends, family, and love directed by James Robinson. Set designer Allen Moyer crafted a square center stage that rotates to move from living room to kitchen to frosted windowpanes. Chalkboards slide out from the sides to transition to a school scene. This deconstructed charm works but for the giant print snowflakes framing the stage, which look like bad wrapping paper.
Gordon’s score, conducted with some careful hesitation by Bradley Moore, alludes to many Christmas classics—cozy brass, triangles and chimes, clip-clop knocks, and high violin glissandos. Piano interludes between the opera’s 10 scenes were the only thing that wandered close to new music territory.
Soprano Lauren Snouffer, in the lead as precocious kid Addie Mills, is undoubtedly a major reason why this opera succeeds in the holiday genre. Her voice is clear and sweet—the consummate instrument for such an earnest and innocent role. Tenor Maximillian Macias, a junior at the High School for Performing and Visual Arts making his HGO debut, is an ideal match as Billy Wild with a sunny voice that belies his good heart even as he’s pelting Addie with snowballs.
Baritone Daniel Belcher, in the role of Addie’s father James Addison Mills, likewise performed hearty phrases keenly. The few missteps: As Grandma Mills, soprano Patricia Schuman struggled in the higher range, where notes squeezed off rather than rang out, and as Addie’s dear friend Carla Mae, mezzo-soprano Megan Mikailovna Samarin remained firmly in the big-opera style of Verdi and Wagner.
HGO has made a few adjustments in the temporary Resilience Theater in the George R. Brown Convention Center. You’ll find additional seat cushions on your bleacher seats emblazoned with HGO’s logo. The orchestra is set stage right out in front, where the sound travels significantly better than it did behind the stage for La Traviata. Most of all, the whole stage is rigged with microphones, meaning that singers no longer seem to be killing themselves to project in the cavernous space, but this kind of amplification comes with serious compromises, not least as an established faux pas in grand opera tradition. Sure, it picks up voices, but it also catches every newspaper rustle and coffee cup shuffle.
Vavrek’s libretto is perhaps the winning piece to this holiday show. His libretto is simple and straightforward—not likely to work everywhere, but it does here. Lines like “Teacher’s pet pet pet pet,” “Moo, thank you,” and “This is the most embarrassing day of my life,” are steeped in childhood vernacular. Who didn’t feel they’d had the most embarrassing day of their lives by the time they were 12? The unguarded style soars in Gordon’s arias that sometimes circle back, as with “Promise me,” a number that appears at the beginning and the end of the opera. When Addie sings for the second time “This house now looks like Christmas; this house now feels like Christmas,” it’s not a complicated message—just the thing, really, to usher in cheer.
Thru Dec. 17. Tickets from $25. The Resilience Theater at George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.