HGO gives effective and colorful premiere for Heggie’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”
The prelude begins high in the strings, led by violins spinning out strands of luminous tone. That sonority has evoked celestial realms at least since Verdi’s Rigoletto, where it lights the dying Gilda’s path to heaven.
And, sure enough, when the curtain opens on the new opera, we meet the angel who will pull back George Bailey from suicide in Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer have transported the beloved classic Christmas movie to the stage, creating a 2-3/4-hour music drama premiered by Houston Grand Opera Friday night.
Scheer has recast the saga of George’s despair and salvation into a form that’s fast-moving yet embraces musical set-pieces. Heggie tells the story in tried-and-true musical terms, as in that prelude. Angels sing harmoniously. Bouncy dance numbers hearken back to the 1920s to animate party scenes. The orchestra glows as George and Mary fall in love. George and the orchestra lash out as frustration seizes him. Town tycoon Mr. Potter lets fly with high-and-mighty declarations. George’s redemption leads to a warm, ringing final ensemble.
It’s a Wonderful Life makes an effective stage piece, as far as it goes. Yet it stops short of transforming the story’s emotions and drama into arresting music theater. For all its liveliness and theatrical impact, HGO’s production can’t make up for an emotional depth that is missing.
Take George and Mary’s love scene, which closes Act 1. As the young people discover their feelings, the orchestra wells up and the vocal parts gain urgency. But the music never coalesces into a compelling melody or orchestral fabric that would conjure up passion taking hold. Imagine the buildup of the balncy scene in West Side Story’ with “Tonight” never arriving.
The commitment and flair of the excellent cast on opening night sometimes lent the music power that was not always in the score. As George’s torments seize him, tenor William Burden sang with a brilliance and abandon that did more than the vocal lines or orchestral part to get the message across. When Mr. Potter offered George a high-paying job, baritone Rod Gilfry laced Potter’s sonorous voice with acidic touches that hinted at Potter’s cunning intentions. But the orchestra’s accompaniment gave little or no hint that Potter was being two-faced.
Heggie and Scheer made one fundamental change in the beloved tale: They turned Clarence, George’s guardian angel, into a woman, Clara. In interviews, Heggie explained that he wanted the two central roles to include a contrast between male and female voices.
Soprano Talise Trevigne, who played the cabin boy Pip in the original cast of Heggie’s Moby-Dick, brought to the role a warm, soaring voice that fit right in with classic notions of what an angel should sound like. She didn’t always combine that with intelligible English enunciation, though. The need to look up to the supertitle screen and read what Clara was saying kept the opera’s first scene — depicting her and her fellow angels on high — from taking off.
Stage director Leonard Foglia and set designer Robert Brill placed the entire story in a sort of celestial limbo filled with doors, each of which enabled Clara to witness one episode from George’s life. One bank of silvery doors covered the stage’s upward incline; another bank floated overhead. Within that framework, George’s life played out chronologically — from his boyhood rescue of his brother from the pond through his taking over his father’s loan company to his growing dissatisfaction with life.
As a storytelling device, the staging was more effective at some points than others. During the scene at the frozen pond, which featured child actors in speaking roles, George’s brother Harry put down his sled on one of the doors — which plunged him downward, like ice giving way.
Less clear was a scene in the Baileys’ home in Act 2. Mary and the couple’s children, also played by non-singing youngsters, bent down and spread patterned paper across three doors at their feet. The meaning was a mystery until the text revealed that they had dressed up their home with fresh wallpaper.
Foglia drew affecting portrayals from the cast, and the principals added their own vocal and theatrical gifts. Burden brought George’s scenes not only the visceral impact of his ringing voice, but gentler shadings when Mary and their children were on hand.
Gilfry, in his HGO debut, sang with a heft and resonance that made Mr. Potter, even in his wheelchair, a formidable villain. Doubling as the druggist Mr. Gower, Gilfry reined in his voice to reveal the man’s broken spirit. Joshua Hopkins, another rich-voiced baritone, brought George’s brother Harry a burgeoning dignity that suited a character who becomes a war hero.
Mary’s goodness and patience came through in the freshness that soprano Andrea Carroll brought her music, and Carroll’s voice took off in a couple of flights in which she rivaled Travigne’s angelic gleam. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey’s vibrant, multicolored singing brought out the kindheartedness of Uncle Billy, whose absent-mindedness nearly leads to disaster.
All of them, plus the HGO Chorus, deserve credit for throwing themselves unabashedly into Keturah Stickann’s goofy choreography for the Mekee-Mekee — a party dance that was the opera’s period answer to the Funky Chicken or Macarena. And whether the music was light-hearted or fierce, the HGO Orchestra and conductor Patrick Summers performed with energy, fullness and force.
Whatever future Heggie and Scheer’s It’s A Wonderful Life may go on to, HGO has launched it with conviction.
It’s a Wonderful Life runs through Dec. 17. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737