San Francisco Opera 2018-19 Review: It’s a Wonderful Life

Fine Singing Can’t Lift Jake Heggie & Gene Scheer’s New Opera To Higher Realms

By Lois Silverstein

Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” opened earlier this week at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. An American success story based on “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, and Frank Capra’s beloved film on the same story, it combined old and new, young and original, odd and familiar, poignant and comic. Neither movie nor musical, it was definitely its own opera genre, a story told in its own voice.

George Bailey, poised for suicide when his dreams of life remain unfulfilled, survived his own dark intentions with the help of Clara, the Angel, after her own triumph to earn her wings. In becoming Mr. Good-Guy, Bailey brought the American Dream to life for the holidays. From the Charleston to the imaginary Mekee-Mekee, Christmas Trees and Angels suspended over Bedford Falls, we have an easy access to holiday cheer, complete with “Auld Lang Syne” at the end, audience included.

But the question beckons: How did it work? As opera, what did it add?

On Wings of Song

The music was textured with a variety of instrumentation, rhythmically varied and moving fluently from sonorous to jazzy to popular and tuneful. For example, “Goodbye Bedford Falls,” for instance, is a romp on the order of Broadway. Various textures and rhythms were easily accessible and satisfying. At times it seemed almost possible to imagine the score without singers, or without story, to keep it bound as it was. One of the freshest aspects was the variety with which Heggie striated the score – drums, horns, bells, leading and accompanying the multiple changes the story took. Most notably, duets between Mary and George in the Granville House, and later their own home soared, and the plangent aria by Clara, the Angel Second Class before she got her wings, on high swing detailing her plight of waiting for 200 years to set forth on her quest.

Conductor Patrick Summers, who has worked with Heggie and Scheer on each of their opera world premieres, led the orchestra with deft knowledgeability, from dissonance to ardent lyricism.

The use of historical vignettes that outline the story-line, giving context to the original story, substantiates the world beyond the particulars of Bedford Falls and Bailey’s particular journey. From before the stock market crash in 1929, through the trauma of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the creators inset the Bailey story as representative of the plight of the American dream lifestyle. The larger geography and history escalated the awareness of what it is like in the world as well as a small American town, giving dimension George has of his own life – “to see life thoroughly and see it whole” [sic], as Matthew Arnold would say.

Greater Breadth

The singing, of course, accented this breadth.

Tenor William Burden played George Bailey and gave a fine performance. His youthful energy and wish to invent a larger world than the Bedford Falls ignited his imagination and ramped up his possibilities. But his sacrifices led him to self-destructive choices; as he stood on the bridge, sinking deeper and deeper into despair. Throughout he sang with poignancy.

Clara, played by South African soprano Golda Schultz, in her San Francisco Opera debut, stayed on stage almost the whole opera, poking into George’s actions, guiding him, commenting, helping him as he reinvented himself, or took off his masks. Her humorous and witty actions worked in tandem with George and her voice was mellifluous and rich in color. She played the perfect companion.

Canadian Andriana Chuchmann soprano, also in her San Francisco Opera debut, sang movingly and beautifully; her duets with Burden were the most poignant in the whole performance. There wasrich color and fluidity as well as fia ne display of genuine feeling. She moved with flexibility in her renditions of the Mekee-Mekee. She was Mary Bailey and more.

Rod Gilfry, baritone, sang an apt acid-taste villain, although he was as much a cliché as ever, wheelchair and all; Uncle Billy played by Keith Jameson, in San Francisco Opera debut as well,  had perfect timing and apt hits of humor. Mama Bailey, aptly sung by Catherine Cook, and Harry Bailey, sung by Joshua Hopkins, combined to provide rich portraits as well as an essential backdrop for the Bedford Falls community.

The Visual Display

The sets were highly elaborate. The stage design featured projections across a raft of wall – doors/windows of an attic, with movable floor boxes, complete with strings of electric lights, alternating from green, red and yellow, then clear. Angels were suspended with wings; voice-overs and cinematic clips broadened the basic townscape with indoor/outdoor parameters. There were strobe lights that changed size and color of the full moon from pink to blue with concomitant effects. All of these elements contributed to an intensifying of the traditional world we saw in Capra’s film.

Leonard Foglia directed. Throughout he led the cast through a vibrant production, even though the opening Act suffered from a sense of frantic pace and tumult. Too much was afoot, even with voice-over with Patti Lupone.

Still, it settled down with the intimate exchanges between George and Mary. Beyond that, for the operatic dimension, with its quest for extension and more ultimate dimensions, even the angelic realm, with Golda Schultz suspending her glorious voice as she swung overhead, didn’t quite do it. Schultz as Clara, having been transformed from Clarence in Capra’s film, conformed to the realm of the every day, despite Bailey’s quizzical interrogation. The result was that she didn’t convince that she knew more and could explain more of what might be beyond.

Did the opera do more than illustrating another vision of the core story, from Van Doren Stern’s original or Capra’s film version? However rich the interpretation was, it did not lift off into pastures new, and some of what we hope for in opera. More selectivity in historical details, for instance, might have benefitted if there were more selectivity in the historical details, for instance; did we need all the highpoint – 1941, 1929, the roaring 20s, before, and beyond? It was definitely a good place to start, but not to end. We could have had more lift from there.

Scenes on the ground – the Bedford Savings and Loan with Potter and cronies,  refrains that work like leitmotiv and musical textures which would have grabbed both heart and head remained bound to the narrative; story remained dominant. For, despite all the effort and thought that went into the opera’s creation (and it was clearly substantial), it didn’t grow. This was mainly because beyond its locale, the work didn’t take on the dimensions, although it tried.


ReviewsStage Reviews