Houston — There are only a few operas that are based on films—less than a dozen or so. They range from composer Howard Shore and librettist David Henry Hwang’s take on David Cronenberg’s sci-fi/horror film, The Fly, to a new opera based on Hitchcock’s film, Notorious, by Hans Gefors. Silent Night, by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, is a spectacular take on the film Joyeux Noël and deserving of its 2012 Pulitzer Prize.
Frank Capra’s ever-popular film, It’s a Wonderful Life, gets an operatic treatment in Houston on this, the occasion of its 70th anniversary. Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, probably the best opera team of our generation, did the honors. This is the third installment of the Houston Grand Opera’s Holiday Opera Series. The first was Iain Bell and Simon Callow’s opera of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which premiered in 2014. In 2015, HGO revived Rachel Portman and Nicholas Wright's The Little Prince.
It’s a Wonderful Life, seen on Dec. 6 at the Wortham Center in Houston, is more than the title. It the conclusion that the hero of the story realizes when his guardian angel shows him the bleak alternate universe in which he had never been born. (The film was based on Phillip Van Doren Stern’s short story “The Greatest Gift,” which is also credited as a source for the opera.)
Stern’s point is the “Butterfly Effect” is real; that we touch other lives that then touch other lives and so on. Thus, we never can know the effect we have on others, and future situations, as we stagger though life.
Heggie and Scheer have created several operas together, including a very convincing opera out of Herman Melville’s voluminous and dense novel, Moby-Dick for The Dallas Opera (which was recently revived there). There is a huge difference, of course, in transporting the two art forms, book and film, to the operatic stage. With a novel, the reader’s imagination furnishes both the scenery and the look of the characters. The film supplies all of this, and especially with such a well-known one, the images are completely set before the curtain goes up.
Scheer immediately departs from the film and dispels any notion that you may have about expecting the opera to duplicate the film. First of all, George Bailey’s (played by tenor William Burden) guardian angel is not Clarence, but rather a female angel named Clara, played by soprano Talise Trevigne. She is still a second-class angel and her assignment, from a disembodied voice, is to rescue George from despair. This is her graduation exam to first-class status and bestowed with her wings.
Yes—wings. The angels (Clara has a four-man backup group) are all dressed in white satin and have glorious white wings that they can unfurl to great effect. They all descend from, presumably, heaven and hang among an array of stars, represented by lights that fill the stage. It makes for an impressive stage picture, even though Clara’s satin costume is not very flattering.
In the film, this opening scene is between two fuzzy points of light and the rest of the film is a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. So, Scheer does just the opposite. His opening scene is realistic, like angels from a Baroque crèche come to life, and the remainder of the opera is set in a surreal environment.
For those few of you who are not familiar with the movie, here is a summary of the plot: The story follows significant events in the life of George Bailey, a super nice guy who gives up his own dreams to “do the right thing.” As a child, he saves his brother’s life. When his father dies, he puts his own plans of college and a life of travel to save the family business—a small-town Building and Loan. However, when things go terribly wrong, his careless Uncle Billy loses a critically large cash deposit, his life insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive.
That settlement would resolve the bank’s financial collapse. As he is standing on a bridge, ready to jump, Clara appears and takes charge. She takes his statement that it would have been better if he hadn't been born as a plan and she shows him what a bleak place his small hometown of Bedford Falls would have been if he were missing. It is not a pretty picture and he realizes that he has a wonderful life after all.
In a coup de théâtre, Scheer and Heggie separate this fictitious scene by dropping out all music and adding spoken dialogue, and playing the scene on a stage harshly lit with glaring white light. Clara’s alternate, Georgeless universe is in another, completely barren alternative dimension.
Stage director Leonard Foglia and set designer Robert Brill fill the stage with dozens of doors: some flat on the raked stage and others suspended above. Each door represents a critical scene in George’s life and the opera, like the film, starts with George ready to jump off the bridge. What we have then is a series of flashbacks as the doors are opened to reveal their contents. In addition to the obvious benefit of eliminating frequent set changes, this approach works nicely to tell the story.
In Burden’s hands, George is a much more fleshly and volatile man than the laconic way James Stewart played the role in the film. His substantial tenor conveys George’s small-town good heartedness, his ability to accept and make the best of what life hands him and his forceful nature, especially when dealing with the odious Mr. Potter.
Soprano Andrea Carroll is as perfect as the loving wife as Donna Reed was in the film. Vocally, she combines a strong technique with a beautiful voice. The lighter and pure soprano voice of Talise Trevigne is different enough from Carroll’s to offer a contrast.
You cannot compare soprano Talise Trevigne’s portrayal of the angel Clara with Clarence, as played by Henry Travers in the film. In the opera, this character has been completely transformed, in addition to the sex change. Travers played the angel as a bit scattered and only lucks into the solution. Here, Clara is intelligent, bright, clever, cheerful and fully deserving of her wings (which descend from the heavens at the end).
The evildoer is baritone Rod Gilfry as Mr. Potter, the richest man in town. His portrayal is subtler than the Snidely Whiplash that Lionel Barrymore creates in the film, but Gilfry is just as dangerous. He would do, and does, anything to acquire the only article he doesn’t already control in Bedford Falls: Bailey’s beloved Building and Loan.
As the wheelchair-bound Potter, Gilfry is unrecognizable and he sings the role with the cool passion of a friendly raptor. Gilfry is unrecognizable again when he portrays George’s teenage employer, the druggist Mr. Gower. George saves his reputation, and saves him from a felony, by noticing that Gower accidently filled some capsules with poison rather then the drug prescribed.
Baritone Joshua Hopkins plays Harry, George’s much more happy-go-lucky brother. He does a fine job of transforming from roustabout kid to college graduate and then to a war hero.
Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey plays George’s Uncle Billy. He is a kindly uncle but a disastrous bank employee. It is his carelessness, losing $8,000 in cash, that leads to the Building and Loan’s disaster, which drives the distraught George to the edge of the bridge.
Heggie’s music is the latest step in his journey to full-throated neo-romanticism. Probably because of the popular nature of the film, Heggie draws on the language of musical theater. There are no tunes that you will leave humming, but Heggie’s music fits Scheer’s dialogue like a superskin made of latex: inseparable but allowing a lot of flexibility for the conductor and singers.
Because of the roaring 20’s time setting, Heggie incorporates the nascent jazz and dance crazes of the era. But, instead of using the film’s Charleston, Heggie invents a dance craze, christened by Scheer as the “Mekee-Mekee.”
Choreographer Keturah Stickann cobbles that fictitious dance together with moves from the Charleston and its ilk, but also from the “Time Warp,” created by David Toguri for the 1973 musical The Rocky Horror Show, which was immortalized in a cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if the “Mekee-Mekee“ became the best-known selection from the opera, taking its place on the list of dance crazes with “Mashed Potato” or the “Macarena.”)
Conductor Patrick Summers knits all these musical threads together into the crazy-quilt score that may be Heggie’s most delightful concoction. The HGO’s ever-versatile orchestra switches between Heggie’s magpie’s nest of musical styles with ease.
It is impossible to predict the future for this opera. It probably won’t become as ubiquitous at Christmastime as Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker or plays based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But, like the movie, it will probably get many December revivals.