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Jake HEGGIE (b. 1961)
It’s a Wonderful Life (2016).
An Opera in Two Acts. Based in part on the film, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and on ‘The Greatest Gift’, a story by Philip Van Doren Stern. Libretto by Gene Scheer
Clara - Talise Trevigne; A Voice - Patti LuPone; Winged Angels, First Class - D'Ana Lombard, Zoie Reams, Yongzhao Yu, Ben Edquist; George Bailey - William Burden; Young George - Stephen Thomas; Young Tom/Sammy - Levi Smith; Young Mary/Janie - C.J. Friend; Young Harry - Jack Townsend; Mr Gower/Mr Potter - Rod Gilfry; Harry Bailey -Joshua Hopkins; Uncle Billy Bailey - Anthony Dean Griffey; Mother Bailey - Frankie Hickman; Mary Hatch - Andrea Carroll; Ernie - Heath Martin; Zuzu – Elle Grace Graper
Houston Grand Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Patrick Summers
rec. live, December 2016, Wortham Theater Center, Houston, Texas, USA DSD
English libretto included
PENTATONE PTC5186631 SACD [63:50 + 63:02]

For a relatively young company – its first season was 1955-56 - Houston Grand Opera, while by no means neglecting the standard repertoire, has a prodigious record in championing new works. It’s a Wonderful Life is the sixty-second opera that the company has premiered and it’s the fourth that they have commissioned from Jake Heggie. Previous Houston commissions to Heggie are The End of the Affair (2004); Three Decembers (2008); and Pieces of 9/11 (2011). In all but the first of these his librettist was Gene Scheer, with whom he collaborated on this latest work. He and Scheer have worked together on at least three other operas besides those Houston commissions.

It’s a Wonderful Life was premiered in Houston in December 2016 and the present recording was made during the opera’s first run.

Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, which starred James Stewart as the hero, George Bailey, is widely regarded as a classic. It was based on the 1939 short story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. Very briefly, the story concerns the desperation and redemption of George Bailey, a resident of Bedford Falls, New York. On Christmas Eve, Bailey is about to kill himself but is saved by Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody. In response to Bailey’s anguished cry “I wish I’d never been born” Odbody shows him, in a series of flashbacks, what life would have been like for other people had Bailey not been born. The good things he had done for others would never have happened. It’s a sentimental tale, maybe, but it’s powerfully told in Capra’s film.

Gene Scheer’s libretto preserves the essentials of Capra’s film story – I can’t comment regarding fidelity to Stern’s story, since I’ve never read it. Inevitably, the tale is somewhat truncated because the action of a film can move faster than is possible in an opera. There is one significant change: in the film George’s Guardian Angel was male (Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers); Scheer and Heggie opt for a soprano angel, Clara.

In the Prologue to Act I we find Clara in heaven, despairing of ever getting her angelic wings and promotion from Angel Second Class to Angel First Class. It’s Christmas Eve and she’s despatched to earth by some of her colleagues to try to save the despairing George Bailey who is about to throw himself off a bridge into the river to end it all. The Angels freeze time and Clara then witnesses a number of events from George’s life when he does good to others, notably his nine-year-old brother, Harry, who he saves from drowning in an icy pond. George’s father runs Bailey Building & Loan, effectively a mutual building society for the town of Bedford Falls. He succumbs to a stroke as George is about to leave to study at university. Selflessly, though with regrets, George sends Harry to college in his place and instead buckles down to running Bailey Building & Loan. In this capacity he assists many local people and, though he was not to know this, the help that he gave others would eventually save him.

Anyone who has seen the film will know that on Christmas Eve 1945 George’s hapless Uncle Billy fails to bank $8,000 of the firm’s money, contriving to put the money in the hands of the town’s unscrupulous capitalist, Mr Potter. By an unhappy coincidence an auditor is visiting the Building & Loan that very day and without the cash the books won’t balance. Disgrace, foreclosure and, quite possibly, prison beckon for George. In the happy ending to end all happy endings, the people who George has helped throughout his life rally round with money to plug the deficiency; the Building and Loan is saved from the rapacious Mr Potter and Good triumphs over Evil. Not only is George saved from disgrace and restored to his family but also his angel gets her wings and promotion to Angel First Class.

As I said, it’s a sentimental tale - and a moral one – but I’m happy to suspend my disbelief. I think that Gene Scheer has done a good job of conveying the essence of the story into a generally taut and credible libretto. I did wonder if Scene 2 of Act I was a bit overlong. In that scene George, Harry and Uncle Billy are readying George for – as he thinks – his departure for college preceded by some travelling abroad beforehand. Generally, however, the libretto seems pretty sure-footed at least until, as we shall see, the very end of the opera.

Jake Heggie’s music fits the libretto very well, I think. Much of the libretto consists of dialogue so there aren’t too many opportunities for extended solos by individual characters, let alone set-piece arias. The music moves the action along persuasively and I found myself drawn into the story. As I listened, it seemed to me arguable the Heggie’s music may not be too deep but I’m not sure that this particular subject calls for depth. However, the music is accessible and it is clearly the work of a composer who understands how to pace a drama and to portray characters. In particular, the principal characters are all drawn most sympathetically.

So, George comes across as a man who is sometimes frustrated by the lot that life has dealt him – he longed for horizons broader than Bedford Falls – but his instinct is always to do the Right Thing. Mr Potter nearly tempts him at one point with a head-turning offer to work for him at an annual salary of $20,000. Fortunately, George comes to his senses just in time and realises that Potter’s offer is simply designed to eliminate the competition. Tenor William Burden gives a most convincing portrayal. Anthony Dean Griffey characterises the well-meaning Uncle Billy successfully. His voice sounds quite similar to Burden’s which, at times, can be a slight problem in an audio-only recording. Rod Gilfry has two roles but chiefly catches our ear as the unscrupulous Mr Potter. He does very well – so much so that I found myself wanting to say “Boo! Hiss!”

The two female leads are excellent. Andrea Carroll engages our sympathies as Mary Hatch, George’s sweetheart from schooldays who becomes his devoted wife. Heggie gives her a couple of fine, romantic solos to sing and she makes a splendid job of them. I also enjoyed the persuasive performance of Talise Trevigne as Clara. There are a number of smaller parts – including several spoken roles for children – and I don’t believe there’s a single weak link in the cast.

Near the end, as Clara tries to stop George from ending it all, he utters his despairing cry: “I wish I’d never been born”. If you’re familiar with the film you’ll recall that at this point the Angel shows George a whole series of vignettes to illustrate what would have happened to others had he not been born. So, for example, the dreadful Mr Potter got his way and dominated Bedford Falls to such an extent that it was renamed Pottersville. Young Harry, without George to rescue him, died at the age of nine and so didn’t go on to be a decorated fighter pilot in World War II. I wondered how Heggie and Scheer would handle this. They do so ingeniously. The whole scene is a spoken dialogue between Clara and George and there is no music; instead eerie electronic noise provides an unworldly background. I think that’s a success. I’m not so sure that they bring the story to an equally successful end, though. In the theatre the lights go up in the auditorium and the whole company sings to the audience, pointing out the moral of the tale rather obviously. This is the capped by a full-company rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Frankly, I think this is over the top both as an idea and in terms of the music that Heggie has written for these last few minutes. As I’ve said, It’s a Wonderful Life is a sentimental story but at the end I feel Heggie and Scheer overdo the sugary coating. My disappointment that they didn’t find a better way to end is greater because up to that point I think their treatment of the tale had been pretty sure-footed. However, the ending notwithstanding, It’s a Wonderful Life is a very enjoyable operatic experience in which words and music connect very directly with the listener.

The performance is a fine one. The cast is a strong one and they serve Heggie’s music with great commitment. Patrick Summers conducts a performance that is razor-sharp, not only from the principals but also from the excellent orchestra and the chorus

Pentatone’s presentation is first class. I listened to these SACDs using the stereo option. The sound is clear and has plenty of presence and good perspective. The booklet is outstanding. It includes useful notes about the opera and a full, very clearly laid-out libretto. The booklet is abundantly illustrated with colour photographs of the production in progress, which give the listener an excellent flavour of the ‘look’ of the show.

John Quinn



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