By William Albright
HOUSTON — There’s no hope for the maniacally obsessed Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick (2010). But redemption and transformation are at the heart of the composer’s first opera, the anti-death-penalty Dead Man Walking (2000) and of his newest work, the Christmas fable It’s a Wonderful Life, given its world premiere Dec. 2 by Houston Grand Opera.
Heggie’s Life was commissioned by HGO, San Francisco Opera (where it will be staged in 2018), and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. It is based on the Frank Capra-directed 1946 film of the same name, which was inspired by Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 holiday short story “The Greatest Gift.” It’s the tale of how, on Christmas Eve, a guardian angel saves the suicidal George Bailey’s physical and spiritual life by showing him how much his (to him) small-potatoes existence has enhanced the lives of countless people in his small New York hometown of Bedford Falls.
The movie drew mostly positive reviews in America (the British critics hated it) but was anything but the box office hit hoped for and lost in every Oscar category it was competing in (William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was the big winner in the 1947 Academy Awards). But it became a seasonal tradition from the 1970s on, thanks to annual yuletide television airings. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, who wrote the texts for Heggie’s Moby-Dick, Three Decembers, and several of his other works, realize that the now-classic movie has become what they call “almost secular scripture.” Thus, I found the program’s character bios oddly redundant. Surely everybody knows the uplifting plot by now. But I guess an explanation of the role of the orchestra and conductor was included in the program for the benefit of newcomers to opera.
Heggie and Scheer wanted their opera to “honor the source by doing something fresh and new while still telling that story.” Their 2½-hour adaptation of it changed guardian angel Clarence into Clara (so that duets with George would be a soprano-tenor collaboration), gave her the show-opening scene, and put her onstage frequently to witness, react to, and participate in many of George’s experiences, both happy and sad. Because the restless George dreams of visiting such exotic places as the Fiji Islands and Borneo, the creators and choreographer Keturah Stickann enlivened the yarn with multiple renditions of a frenzied tropical dance called the “Mekee-Mekee” (don’t ask). There are also foot-stomping, hand-clapping ensemble outbursts of dances evocative of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
Anybody new to opera would have been impressed by HGO’s production, mounted in the Wortham Theater Center’s Cullen Theater because the company’s usual venue, the larger Wortham Theater, is reserved every Christmas by Houston Ballet’s annual Nutcracker. Robert Brill’s set, Brian Nason’s lighting, Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections, and David C. Woolard’s costumes combine Heaven and Earth. In the staging by Leonard Foglia, who directed the premieres of Heggie’s Three Decembers, The End of the Affair, and Moby-Dick, Clara launches the proceedings suspended in space on a swing, counting prayers and the myriad stars that float down from above and twinkle repeatedly throughout the evening. She is an Angel Second Class and, after two centuries of hoping for a promotion, her earthly rescue mission earns her a set of wings like those sported by the soprano-mezzo-tenor-bass quartet of Angels First Class who, just in case a single airborne angel wouldn’t be uplift enough for one night, help her in her quest.
Paving the raked stage and floating overhead, mirror-like panels are doors behind which lie the events in George’s life from boyhood in 1916 to beloved status in 1945. Scheer’s couplet-peppered libretto ends with the entire population of Bedford Falls singing “No matter how your story ends/No one is a failure who has friends,” an ensemble designed to be as stirringly feel-good as the “Make Our Garden Grow” finale in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.
The opera freely borrows lines and tropes from the Wonderful Life screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and director Capra, but not the running gag that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. That notion is threaded through Heggie’s score, though, starting with the chime-filled prelude to the opera. The overriding characteristic of Heggie’s colorfully orchestrated music is its driving rhythms, not just in the frenetic dance bits. An insistent pulse propels most scenes, and the mood relaxes only when it needs to.
There is a lyrical lushness to the moment when George and Mary Hatch, the future wife who has loved him since girlhood, chat romantically after a high-school dance. There is a similar wistfulness when George’s kid brother Harry and their dim-witted Uncle Billy rhapsodize about Harry’s new bride. And when Mr. Potter, the town moneybags and slumlord, tries to get his grasping mitts on the competing Bailey Savings and Loan by tempting George into a high-paying job in his evil empire, the music has a slyly seductive lilt right out of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
The most striking effect is the orchestral silence when Clara temporarily erases George’s existence to teach him a life lesson. Here, HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers (a Heggie champion who has conducted the world premieres of all six of his major operas) put down his baton, and sound designer Andrew Harper provided an eerily soft, wail-like drone over which the singers only speak until the chastened George repents his desire to end it all and is restored to his (what else?) wonderful life.
Heggie’s writing for the singers makes frequent forays into upper registers, and HGO’s strong cast met all demands both vocal and dramatic. William Burden brought a strong, ringing tenor to George’s longings and travails. HGO newcomer Talise Trevigne made a frisky, clear-toned Clara, and Andrea Carroll’s bright, substantial soprano infused Mary with plenty of strength. Joshua Hopkins deployed a mellow baritone as Harry Bailey, and Anthony Dean Griffey dithered amiably and tenorized attractively as Uncle Billy. Baritone Rod Gilfry did stentorian double duty as Mr. Potter (portrayed as wheelchair-bound because Lionel Barrymore was when he played the iconic heavy in the film) and Mr. Gower, the town druggist whom the alert young George keeps from accidentally poisoning a child.
Will Heggie’s newest work become the holiday cash cow for opera companies that The Nutcracker is for ballet troupes? I’m sure that wish is in Houston Grand Opera’s letter to Santa.
Note: Performances continue through Dec. 17. For more information, click here.
William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.