Della: Sara Duchovnay
Jim: Ryan Bradford
Maggie: Nora Graham-Smith
Henry: Anders Froelich
Conductor: William Long
Stage Director: Laura Anderson
Set Design: Chris Johnson
Costumes: Sara Duchovnay
Sound Design: Drew Yerys
O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi: one of the best-known, best-loved Christmas stories of all time, yet also one of the simplest, and one that revolves around that basic building block of classic opera, romantic love. It’s the perfect subject matter for a one-act Christmas chamber opera, in the vein of Amahl and the Night Visitors; and such a chamber opera is ideally suited to the cozy intimacy of the Hidden Valley Music Seminars in the Carmel Valley.
The plot is universally known. On Christmas Eve, impoverished married couple Jim and Della each give up their most treasured possessions to buy gifts for each other: Della sells her luxuriant hair to buy a chain for Jim’s gold pocket watch, while Jim sells his watch to buy combs for Della’s hair. It’s been adapted, homaged and parodied endlessly in all forms of media – probably most memorably in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, where Ernie and Bert reenacted it with their rubber duckie and paperclip collection replacing the hair and watch. David Conte’s four-scene, hour-long opera adaptation premiered in 1997 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with only piano accompaniment, while an orchestrated version premiered in 2000 at the same venue. Nicholas Giardini’s libretto maintains the short story’s simplicity, only adding two new characters, Maggie and Henry, to serve as sounding boards with whom Della and Jim can discuss their sacrifices and to save the piece from being nothing but sugary romance. In addition to the four main singers, three offstage male voices representing the Magi are heard during a brief entr’acte and again in the opera’s finale. The score is modern in style, with some dissonance and no stand-alone arias, but also has an appealing Romantic quality and contains hints of Puccini, particularly La Bohéme, that manage to feel fitting, not lazy. The version of the score performed at the Hidden Valley Music Seminars was a new one created especially for the venue, with the 2000 score’s fourteen-player orchestra reduced to seven.
The tiny black-box stage was easily transformed into Della and Jim’s tiny New York apartment, with a table and chairs, basic kitchen necessities, a clothesline, windows, a curtain for a front door, a shabby Christmas tree added in the second half, and more curtains serving as a plain white backdrop. In the 300-seat, charmingly barn-like wooden theatre, where every audience member was just feet away from the singers and every character’s facial expressions were clearly visible, it provided a perfect intimate setting for the time-honored short story.
The performance was carried beautifully by Sara Duchovnay’s Della and Ryan Bradford’s Jim – the two singers once again paired together less than two months after appearing as Zerlina and Masetto in Opera Santa Barbara’s Don Giovanni. Duchovnay’s light, honeyed soprano and Bradford’s warm, sumptuous baritone suited the music magnificently, and they were thoroughly believable, adorable and tender as the doting young couple who lose their prize possessions but in their place gain a deeper love than ever before. In the supporting roles, Nora Graham-Smith offered a strong mezzo voice and welcome comic relief as Della’s neurotic friend Maggie, while bass-baritone Anders Froehlich was likewise effective as Jim’s gruff yet kindly older friend Henry. The seven-member orchestral ensemble, conducted by William Long, provided a flawless backbone, benefiting enormously from the small theatre’s excellent acoustics.
This short yet infinitely sweet opera is one I can easily imagine becoming a holiday tradition for opera companies across America, particularly in intimate venues, either on its own or in a double-bill with another one-act Christmas piece. (Amahl and the Night Visitors being the most obvious choice.) And this production, in my humble opinion, was the best it could possibly have been. The performances were all first rate and Hidden Valley provided the ideal venue. If Gift of the Magi becomes an ongoing Hidden Valley holiday tradition, I intend to come back and revisit it year after year!