By Elsa Tranter
Photo credit: Cory Weaver /San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera is touting its holiday opera offering, Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life (with libretto by Gene Scheer) as ‘family friendly’ even though it’s having most of its performances before December even arrives. I guess we all need a jump-start to the season given all the bad news and dark events that abound. At the end of the evening, I had mixed feelings—I was smiling and my heart was full, the music was tuneful and melodic—but I didn’t feel like I’d had a truly operatic experience. Maybe familiarity and English lyrics breed middlebrow burnout.
The opera “It’s a Wonderful Life” was conceived by Heggie and Scheer many years ago (one of many pieces, large and small that the two have co-written, including the opera “Moby Dick”) and both men are huge fans of the 1946 movie which it follows quite closely. Many will remember the Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed/Lionel Barrymore film, though I don’t know how many have watched it every year, as a seasonal rite (as they have). The moral of the story is that things aren’t so bad if you have friends, though sometimes you need a kick on the side of the head to realize it. They were well aware of its iconic nature and the need to do more than just re-tell the story with music. In some ways they succeeded; in others, perhaps they did not.
The opera had its world premiere in at Houston Grand Opera in December 2016 and has been revised performances there and at Indiana University. San Francisco Opera is presenting its west coast premiere.
The role of George Bailey was sung by American tenor William Burden, who originated the role in Houston. He isn’t Jimmy Stewart but he has a strong voice with warm resonance and the acting skills to carry off the part. He moved from young enthusiast to cynical depressive with great skill. And in one of the most effective scenes where he loses patience with his daughter’s piano playing, the music shifted from the cinematic opera-light to something darker and more dramatic.
As his long-suffering wife Mary, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman had the right combination of classic ‘prettiness’ and a bright pleasant voice. At times she seemed to be channeling Donna Reed and was very effective. The chemistry between husband and wife was very much of the time period, charming and sweet.
The change from the movie most commented on is the role of the Angel Second Class who, after two hundred years, still doesn’t have his wings. In the movie he is Clarence, a kind of loser; in the opera the angel is Clara, a sweet young thing (despite her age). (In an earlier discussion about the opera, composer Jake Heggie commented that he wanted the contrast in voices of soprano and tenor rather than having two male voices singing all through the opera.) That makes perfect sense. As is often the case with modern operas, there is some technical wizardry and Clara arrives from the sky, by means of wires, and leaves the same way. Her part is sung by the lovely Golda Schultz, a South African soprano making her debut in San Francisco. She has a bright and sparkling voice and a beautiful smile and is the kind of angel we’d all like to have keeping an eye on us.
The fourth main character is the bad guy, the millionaire Mr. Potter, played in the film by Lionel Barrymore. Here the role is sung by Rod Gilfrey, whom some of us remember as the hunky Stanley Kowalski in the world premiere production of Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1998. He was good then and he is good now. (As an aside, I compared this opera with “Streetcar” in that it was too much a re-telling of a very good play that didn’t need to be turned into an opera—not enough was added).
Smaller parts were well sung and ably acted by Joshua Hopkins as Harry Bailey, Keith Jameson as Uncle Billy Bailey, Catherine Cook as Mother Bailey, and Sarah Cambidge, Ashley Dixon, Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell as the quartet of Angels First Class. The voice of Patti Lupone was heard, miked, several times, as ‘A Voice’. I don’t think it added much.
When Clara the angel shows George how the world would be if he hadn’t been born, the music stops, and the singers speak their lines. And then it’s like going from black-and-white to Technicolor when the music returns and George realizes his worth to the community. I thought that worked well.
The final community gathering led to an audience sing-along of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ which was a little hokey but seemed to go over okay with the audience. (No operatic voices in my section of the opera house).
The creative team is led by conductor Patrick Summers, a long-time favorite in San Francisco. He kept the orchestra fully engaged and enthusiastic. Leonard Foglia is the director. Set designer is Robert Brill and costume designer is David C. Woolard. Everything worked well throughout the production, and the crowd scenes were well choreographed by Keturah Stickann.
There are many activities are planned for the weekend performances to encourage family attendance. I didn’t notice many children in the audience when I was there, but maybe they’ll attend the matinees. Perhaps making the appeal to children has taken away a little of the ‘heft’ of the piece as opera. It was pleasant, tuneful, nostalgic and inoffensive, but not something to return to obsessively as the best operas are for me.
Five performances remain: November 29, December 1, 4, 7, 9.
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.