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HEGGIE: It’s a Wonderful Life 

CD Button Trevigne, Carroll; Burden, Gilfry, Hopkins, Griffey; Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Summers. English text. Pentatone  PTC5186 631 (2)

Recordings Wonderful Life Cover 1217
Critics Choice Button 1015

COMPOSER JAKE HEGGIE and librettist Gene Scheer’s adaptation of the beloved film It’s a Wonderful Life had its premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 2015 as part of the company’s ongoing series of new Christmas-season works. This two-disc set is a live capture of the world premiere. The opera, like the film, begins in the heavens; the aging angel Clarence has been recast as a young, vibrant female angel named Clara. Sung by Talise Trevigne, Clara plays a much more prominent role in the opera than Clarence does in the film. Trevigne, possessed of a well-focused, gleaming soprano, is magnetic in Clara’s lilting, alluring monologue, in which she laments that she still hasn’t earned her wings after two hundred years. Heggie’s music for Clara and the Chorus of Angels is suitably otherworldly, with upper-register muted strings amid slightly dissonant sonorities and some wonderfully intricate choral writing.

Once we descend to Earth, catchier fare kicks in, as Clara discovers George’s collection of travel magazines and we hear stirrings of calypso music. The following scene, with kids sledding across the ice, has distinctly Bernsteinian swagger. Later, we’re introduced to the conga-like “Mekee-Mekee,” a dance George swears is indigenous to Fiji. George, Harry and Uncle Billy sing close harmony in “Goodbye, Bedford Falls,” an elegant two-step with a rousing, martial-style chorus. In the subsequent scene at the gym, we meet Mary (soprano Andrea Carroll), who sings the senior-class farewell song (a reverential variant of “Goodbye, Bedford Falls”) with purity and radiance. This leads to more dance music, infiltrated with mounting tension, up to the moment when the floor opens and George and Mary fall into the pool. 

Heggie weaves deftly in and out of sections and styles with considerable compositional skill. Apart from the set pieces, in the regular back-and-forth of the musicalized dialogue, he is unusually adept at finding the natural melodies and rhythms in Scheer’s faithful, periodically rhyming libretto; recurring musical motifs add to the coherence. (The Mekee-Mekee theme recurs insidiously.)

In the love scene at the end of Act I, as George (William Burden) offers to lasso the moon for Carroll’s Mary, the music is poignant, delicate and lovely, without treacle. Burden and Carroll have ideal voices for the young leading couple—attractive, immediate and pulsing with earnestness. Burden gets to show considerable versatility: his voice takes on a bitter, sardonic edge as George realizes he may never be able to leave Bedford Falls. He’s also hair-raising in his disturbing rant on the phone with Zuzu’s schoolteacher.

Heggie boldly chose to stop the music in the scene in which Clara shows George what life would have been like had he never been born. This entire section is spoken, within a digital soundscape of extra reverb. It’s not a copout; the impact the music makes when it returns is indisputable.

The only misjudgment is the climactic scene, in which everyone in town shows up to bail George out of his financial problems. The music trumpets the joyfulness we’re supposed to feel, but it seems false and manipulative as we’re besieged by a flood of bright A-major. Heggie has managed the opera’s panstylistic elementsso well up to this point. 

The powerful baritone Rod Gilfry makes the villainous Mr. Potter multidimensional, singing with a steely, menacing edge but also enough charm that you might be convinced to adopt his arch-capitalist worldview. Joshua Hopkins, as George’s younger brother, Harry, is moving when he sings, in his rich baritone, about being in love. As Uncle Billy, Anthony Dean Griffey finds, with Hopkins, a beautiful blend for their contrasting tessituras. Later, Griffey’s blazing tenor is gripping when Uncle Billy realizes he’s misplaced eight thousand dollars.

HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers, a specialist in contemporary opera, is exemplary, shifting nimbly through the kaleidoscope of contrasting styles and showing mastery of all of them. The HGO Orchestra plays flawlessly.  —Joshua Rosenblum

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