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In Review > North America

It’s a Wonderful Life

Houston Grand Opera

In Review Its a Wonderful Life Houston hdl 317
Burden and Trevigne in HGO’s It’s a Wonderful Life
© Karen Almond

THERE IS BOTH GOOD and bad in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which had its world premiere at Houston Grand Opera on December 2. But in this new work—commissioned by HGO and coproduced with San Francisco Opera and Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music—the bad overwhelmed the good. At its best, the opera (seen Dec. 17), directed by Leonard Foglia and conducted by Patrick Summers, creatively reimagines the story of the beloved Frank Capra movie to give it new depth and meaning. But in the opera’s worst moments, Scheer’s libretto gets sidetracked into inconsequential details—as when too much time is devoted to younger brother Harry Bailey’s enthusing over his new bride—and Heggie’s score betrays glaring lapses of inspiration that sometimes bring the show to a stop.

Among the positives of this telling, we are given a better picture of George’s guardian angel—a female named Clara, rather than an elderly man named Clarence, as in the film. We see Clara’s self-doubt as she struggles to win her wings and her abundant empathy for George Bailey as she comes to understand his circumstances. We also see enough of Uncle Billy, beyond his bumbling incompetency, to understand why everyone loves him, and we get an incisive credo for Mr. Potter (“Profit is the art of the future”) that makes an operatic persona out of the amoral capitalist. The set design by Robert Brill, which arrays numerous mirrored doors against the backdrop on a steeply raked stage, provided the central motif of the opera—that is, a representation of the whole of George’s life as a series of paths taken or doors chosen. The set, as enhanced by Brian Nason’s lighting, is the production’s greatest strength.

Then there are the negatives. There may be good and thoughtful musico-dramatic intentions behind the decisions to have the children of the cast only speak and never sing, and to abandon music altogether during the portion of the story in which George sees the world in which he was never born. But these effects ranged from nonsensical (singing adults in dialogue with talking children) to boring (George and Clara drearily talking their way through a series of encounters with hostile townsfolk). Is writing for children that difficult or risky? Is there really no music that could capture the nightmarish vision of a world without George? Brill’s set design, precisely because of its fresh perspective on George’s life and unifying power throughout, illustrated the lack of these things in the score. Rather than offering a similarly fresh perspective, Heggie chose to narrate the story’s details meticulously—playful childhood, high-school alma mater, 1920s-era dancing, awakening love, WWII anthem, Janie’s piano practicing—and the effect of this movie-score approach on the opera stage was tiresome. Although the concluding message of the opera—“no one is a failure who has friends”—gets a rousing final chorus, the most memorable music in the score, thanks to its annoying repetition, was the “Mekee-Mekee,” a supposed Fijian dance whose pseudo-exoticism illustrates George’s frustrated wanderlust. Opera offers the possibility for musically distilling the essence of a story, and Wonderful Life gives us “Mekee-Mekee”?

In spite of its faults, Wonderful Life sported some first-rate performances. The abundant color and plasticity of Talise Trevigne’s soprano made Clara, her HGO debut role, satisfyingly deep and nuanced. Tenor William Burden brought searing conviction to the role of George Bailey, and Andrea Carroll’s vibrant soprano, with its melting soft notes, captured Mary Hatch’s wholesome goodness. Summers and the HGO Orchestra brought out the score’s kaleidoscopic detail. This was, in sum, a strong performance of a flawed work. But Verdi and Puccini could revise as needed; so too might Heggie.  —Gregory Barnett

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