American composer Jake Heggie is best known for his opera Dead Man Walking. His predilection for turning to popular sources continues with It’s A Wonderful Life, receiving its West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Opera and based on the beloved 1946 film classic. The number of children in velvet clothing in the audience suggests that this opera may also be vying to become a family favourite.
The opera’s plot largely adheres to the film: George Bailey is a nice guy who longs to escape his home town of Bedford Falls, but fate keeps drawing him back. When his family’s savings and loan company is put in danger on Christmas Eve, he contemplates suicide and is rescued by an “Angel Second Class” – not the Clarence of the film but rather Clara (Golda Schultz, who effortlessly brightens up every scene she’s in).
As George Bailey, William Burden does his best with the thankless job of measuring up to the every-man charm of Jimmy Stewart. Andriana Chuchman is ideal in the role of his devoted wife, Mary; her vivid soprano makes us forget about Donna Reed. As the arch-villain Mr Potter, Rod Gilfry has an authoritative voice but could usefully study his filmic counterpart, Lionel Barrymore, when it comes to conveying menace.
Heggie’s music is expressive, if not trailblazing, with touches of Gershwin, American musicals, film scores, and a soupcon of Sondheim, all giving insight into the characters’ inner lives. You will know some of the words already: librettist Gene Scheer has admitted to quoting liberally from the film’s dialogue.
Robert Brill’s set design is a visual delight. Large boxes on the stage and walls are set off with shimmering lighting, and projected videos provide a shifting canopy of snow and stars. There’s magic too in the way angels float above the stage on swings before descending.
How much you will enjoy this opera probably depends on your love for the original film or for your sentimental views of small town life, though, it is fair to say, there is a dark edge. But Heggie and Scheer have definitely earned their wings.