What happens when you take a 1946 film classic as inspiration, and add vibrant color, lush music, breathtaking performers and an awe-inspiring stage? You get Houston Grand Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life. More than just a feast for the eyes, Wonderful takes on the story presented by Capra’s original film and breathes new, vibrant life into it.
The opera differs from the movie in several important respects. While the movie focused on the character of George Bailey as a way to tell the story of how he learns a valuable life lesson during a dark time, the opera instead places the spotlight on on Guardian Angel Second Class Clara a lowly and wingless guardian angel whose dream is to become one of the winged Angels First Class.
The character of George Bailey is meant to be shown in the gloom of despair and the light of salvation, but Wonderful gives the story a fast-moving pace that incorporates musical set-pieces to carry the story along. The set itself is a wonder of visually arresting images and objects, as mirrors designed to look like windows dot the stage, representing portals between heaven and earth, through which angels like Clara travel.
Clara’s insertion into George’s life persuades him not to kill himself after Uncle Billy misplaces $8000, which nearly results in the firm’s bankruptcy and George’s suicide. She earns her wings by helping George to see that the community cares enough about him to contribute financially to save the Bailey’s company and that the world, which at first seems cruel and filled only with pain would be worse off without him.
With soprano Talise Trevigne as Clara, tenor William Burden as George Bailey (a role he created), soprano Andrea Carroll as Mary Hatch Bailey, and Baritone Rod Gilfry in two roles as Mr. Potter and Mr. Gower, there are some amazingly gifted singers with stellar reputations and talent on stage, and the roles they bring to life work to create a new vision of this classic story.
Houston Grand Opera has always been on the cutting edge when it comes to producing new operas, and Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life is certainly one to add to the list.