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A Christmas Carol, Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, Houston, Texas — review
From the Financial Times of Wed, 17 Dec 2014 18:02:39 GMT
Jay Hunter Morris in 'A Christmas Carol'©Lynn Lane

Jay Hunter Morris in 'A Christmas Carol'

The tradition of performing A Christmas Carol as a one-man show goes back to Dickens himself and continues with contemporary practitioners such as Patrick Stewart and Gerald Dickens. Now it has inspired a brilliant new opera by the young British composer Iain Bell, with a libretto by the actor, director and Dickens expert Simon Callow and a performance of astounding stamina and vigour by the tenor Jay Hunter Morris. Don’t expect jolly holiday entertainment, although the new Christmas Carol is amply heartwarming in its own entrancing way.

Bell remains true to his modernistic leanings in music that dovetails beautifully with the story’s ghostly format as it creates tension and an evocative aura in an unbroken flow. Yet there is much more to the music — excellently performed by 16 instrumentalists led by Warren Jones — than simply atmospheric effect, not least recognisable motifs that recur to create unity. And part of the work’s allure comes from perceiving the gentle shift in musical mood to reflect Scrooge’s new-found humanity without turning saccharine.

“No wind that blew was bitterer than he,” we’re told of the unreconstructed Scrooge. Callow has assembled from Dickens’s texts a libretto of theatrical savvy, touching on aspects of Scrooge’s past, such as the apparent hardship he suffered from his father, and bringing back to haunt him callous remarks he made about prisons and workhouses.

Callow’s stark production is also a major plus. Apart from a large staircase that undergoes numerous transformations (arrestingly lit from above by Mark McCullough in the manner of an interrogation room), the props of Laura Hopkins’s decor are few but important, among them a golden casket for Scrooge’s imaginary future.

Morris, a heldentenor, learned the daunting score in short order after Anthony Dean Griffey cancelled the run for health reasons. His availability was an apparent godsend. Although Bell writes engagingly for the voice, the singer is required to impersonate multiple characters, which Morris did with aplomb. Still, it was good to hear him sing out passionately in his own natural voice to express Scrooge’s most anguished moments.

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