I have a confession: I never saw Frank Capra’s 1946 perennial favorite It’s a Wonderful Life until—gasp!—last week. (I know, I know.) I watched it before seeing composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer's world premiere at Houston Grand Opera this month. But despite identical titles, this is not another version of the film, but a musical reimagining of the sentimental story.
The two-act opera follows Clara the angel (known to film loyalists as Clarence and performed by soprano Talise Trevigne) who restlessly wonders how she can get her first-class heavenly wings when George Bailey (tenor William Burden) appears on a bridge, contemplating suicide. The story shifts to scenes from George’s life, including his childhood, romance with Mary Hatch (soprano Andrea Carroll), selfless decision to run Building & Loan Company and, finally, the events that led him to the bridge. Clara needs her wings; George needs a different life.
The cast is great. I can’t imagine a better performer for Mary than Carroll, who plays the role with charm and sings with bullseye precision. Her voice is the best kind of paradox: a sweet, unassuming timbre with a serious attention to technique. As George, Burden may not be much of a dancer, but he has a woody heartiness to his voice that few tenors achieve. And from start to finish, Trevigne sang like the angel she portrayed.
But from here things become disjointed. The score, set and choreography all seem geared toward fragmentation. Music conducted astutely by the ever-fluid Patrick Summers, artistic and music director of HGO, pulls from a mixture of genres: film tropes of wonderment (think the Harry Potter score by John Williams) with high-skittering notes in the strings that are offset by sweeping phrases, chimes and cymbals, as well as peppy musical numbers that evoke works by Rodgers and Hammerstein. But there's nothing operatic here. The strings recitatifs—speak-singing interludes traditionally between arias—along in a sputtering line that never leads into any arias. There’s an extended scene toward the end of the performance without any music whatsoever, which makes categorizing the production as a stand-alone opera tricky.
The set, designed by Robert Brill, is an array of angled mirrored doors. Behind each door is a different memory, with various characters clambering in and out. It’s clear Brill was after a cohesive effect—something to hold all the pieces of the story together in one space. But at times, it felt like purgatory, where no amount of red and green lighting could add warmth to the set. Scheer's libretto is conversely simplistic with a few strange metaphors and repeated phrases to emphasize the story’s staple themes. Believe me—you won’t forget that George wants to travel to the Parthenon and Coliseum.
What I saw was baffling, and I hesitate to call it an opera or even recommend it, but the core message from the film still rings true through this musical interpretation: "No man is a failure who has friends."
Houston Grand Opera's It's a Wonderful Life
Thru Dec. 17. From $28. Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. houstongrandopera.org