Monday, December 03, 2018

It's a Wonderful Life, San Francisco Opera

Act I of It's a Wonderful Life
Golda Schultz as Clara and William Burden as George Bailey (center) 
Sarah Cambidge, Amitai Pati, Ashley Dixon and Christian Pursell as Angels First Class.
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera was one of the co-commissioners of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's adaptation of Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life, which premiered in Texas in December, 2016. The opera is now 2/3 of the way through a nine-performance run at SFO. I saw the performance of Sunday, November 25.

Full disclosure: I just can't stand the film. I came to this stance comparatively recently; when I first saw it, as a teen, and through the years, I found it charming and heart-warming. Last time around, as a more sophisticated and observant adult, well, I concluded that the main message of the film is that you should carry on, give up your dreams, and keep your nose to the grindstone. Also, the wicked won't be punished. All this is wrapped in the maudlin tale of an incompetent angel - I mean, how could there be such a thing, theologically speaking?? -- who has failed, repeatedly, to earn his wings. Once again, what the fuck does this mean, theologically??

I'm happy to say that this opera is a big, big improvement on the movie. It's not that Heggie's music turns the story into an expressionist masterpiece - boy, wouldn't that have been a surprise - but his brand of pretty, complicated-enough, beautifully-orchestrated music has just enough edge, just enough ability to provide ambiguity, to cut through the sweetness and present something that is more realistic than the film. Scheer's libretto helps a good deal with this, because there is more, and more explicit, emphasis on what George Bailey, the hero of the story, has given up to be the good guy proprietor of the family building and loan association in a very small town.

William Burden as George Bailey in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's "It's a Wonderful Life."
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

On top of that, instead of the aw-shucks baritone voice of Jimmy Stewart, the opera has the plangent tenor of William Burden. The sound of his voice makes a huge difference in putting over the part!

Let me say something that I think I've said before: Burden one of the greatest tenors singing today. If he doesn't have the fame and fan club of Jonas Kaufmann, well, okay, nobody is quite that darkly handsome, but beyond that, you won't usually find Burden singing top-10 tenor roles. He's been most visible to me in new operas and in the less-performed areas of the repertory. I've seen him as a terrifying Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw and an impassioned Laca in Jenufa, as St. Peter in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Captain Vere in Billy Budd, and more.

He was at his absolute best in It's a Wonderful Life. He sounded fantastic, in top vocal form, and, really, the part fit him like a glove. Okay, it should, since it was written with him in mind. Still! Voices change, singers have off nights, etc. Dramatically, he was also everything you'd want, whether as a young man heading, he thinks, for college, or as an adult standing up to evil Mr. Potter, or as a scared fellow worried that his business is about to collapse.

Golda Schultz as Clara in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's "It's a Wonderful Life."
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Heggie and Scheer were also extremely canny in how they handled Clarence the incompetent angel: he is transmuted into Clara, who has been trying to get promoted for 200 years, and who seems well-meaning, rueful, and kind. There's no explanation that I caught as to why she hasn't got her wings yet, and I think that is just as well. The role seems to have been written to be played by a Black soprano, given that Talise Trevigne created the role, the South African soprano Golda Schultz is singing it here, and one of the performances was taken by Kearsten Piper Brown.

Schultz, making her SFO debut, was perfectly charming and lovely as Clara, singing with a light, sweet, well-projected soprano. She's a good actor as well, and has lots of presence. I hope she'll be back!

Andriana Chuchman as Mary Hatch and William Burden as George Bailey in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's "It's a Wonderful Life."
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Heggie and Scheer's Mary Hatch tracks pretty closely with the Mrs. Bailey of the movie, falling for George at a very young age and loving him to the end. The pair have a couple of lovely scenes together. I loved Andriana Chuchman, also making her SFO debut, who sang gorgeously and came off a lot like Donna Reed without actually imitating her - ideal match of singer to role, and what a beautiful voice!

Rod Gilfrey, not heard at SF Opera for a while, was an excellent, evil Potter. (I liked him a whole lot as the Music Master in this past summer's Ariadne auf Naxos at the other SFO.) My big regret about the libretto is that it doesn't tie up the matter of the $8,000 that Potter blithely steals from Uncle Billy. No photos of Gilfrey in character at the SFO web site, so no photos of him for now.

Joshua Hopkins, also making his local debut, sang a manly Harry Bailey. Tenor Keith Jameson was Uncle Billy, and he could have been more bumbling. Catherine Cook stole one scene as Mother Bailey.

The production is nice enough and very efficient, a unit set with squares all over it that turn out to have various functions, including hiding props and as trap doors (I think). Leonard Foglia's direction was also efficient. Patrick Summers is in tune with the music and conducted with his customary flair.

The opera is overall pretty shamelessly tear-jerking, especially the end, but I guess that is about what you would expect from an adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life.

No comments: