Poison, suicide, bankruptcy, the Great Depression. These are wonderful themes for a family-oriented Christmas opera, aren’t they?
Picking up where it left off last Christmas with the world premiere of Iain Bell and Simon Callow’s A Christmas Carol, the first installment in its Holiday Opera Series, Houston Grand Opera is now offering its second “holiday” commission, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
The two-act piece is inspired by, but not based upon, Frank Capra’s ever-popular movie holiday melodrama It’s a Wonderful Life, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Bearing little resemblance to that source material, HGO might just as well have set Sartre’s Being and Nothingness to music and called it an uplifting Christmas work. ’Tis the season to be gloomy, it seems.
If the opera has provoked anything in my imagination, it is a rumination on original Christmas entertainments of the past decades. I’m not going to use the word “holiday” here because it’s evident what’s at stake. We all know this is about Christmas trees, candy canes, the spirit of giving, jingle bells, snow, reindeers, mistletoe, and all the rest. Christmas in the American post-WW II period has been largely celebrated in the mainstream culture as a secular fantasy vaguely embodying generosity and charity, and the subsequent entertainments reflect that aesthetic.
My childhood, adolescence, and early adult years were marked by wonderfully entertaining and inventive new and original Christmas stories and music. The short list would start with the animated version of Charles M. Schulz’ A Charlie Brown Christmas, with its catchy score by Vince Guaraldi, and then continue on with Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse Christmas Special and Jean Shepherd’s 1983 masterpiece, A Christmas Story.
Opera houses have failed us at Christmas, and with this effort at HGO, they continue to fail us. I didn’t get north last year to see Dallas Opera’s world premiere of Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus, and I really regret that, because the press coverage of it was very encouraging. I’ll agree right now that we cannot keep watching Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors year after year, as much as I love it. Opera needs its Nutcracker.
Where is it? Certainly not in Heggie and Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which resembles more a badly-written agit-prop play supported by an unforgettable orchestration.
Emphasizing the dark side
For most of this opera, Heggie and Scheer emphasize the dark side of George Bailey’s existence, and the characters wander among a field of large mirrors painted to resemble windows. In the opera, they were referred to as “hatches.” It makes the characters seem like prisoners trapped in a 1980s suburban shopping mall. The set is constant throughout both acts.
An angel, Clara, also trapped in an existential dilemma of her own, wants to earn her wings so that she can move on to Winged Angel, First Class. Often, she and George sing back and forth as if in some kind of pointless argument, in the upper part of their respective registers, and loudly. The music is neither melodic or full-out dissonant. The phrasing is banal, as if it had been created only to carry the clumsy dialogue. Certain harmonies recall Broadway more than the opera house. It’s as if Heggie has taken all of the phrases Sondheim threw out and pieced them back together into some sort of neutral musical quilt.
Despite a few brief choral numbers and some half-hearted duets, this work is two hours of wandering recitative. I am hard-pressed to recall one melody. All of the children speak their parts, as if Heggie didn’t think they could be worthy singers. And in the scene where George laments that he’d rather not have been born and God grants his wish, the orchestra simply goes silent and the audience is forced to witness 15 minutes of bad acting from Talise Trevigne and William Burden.
There are some peripheral characters, all of them uninspiring, such as a mercenary banker in a wheelchair and George’s sexless fiancee and then wife, Mary. In the first act and parts of the second, the ensemble keeps dancing the Mekee-Mekee, an alleged dance from Fiji, which becomes quite irritating but allows Heggie to recycle musical material he’s already composed.
At times the opera is strangely political, as if Scheer were going for some kind of Brechtian mood. “Profit is the art of the future!” sings the mercenary banker. Later, when the the stage is covered with dollar bills, the chorus celebrates George as “the richest man in town.” Money, in the end, always wins the day.
In program notes, HGO artistc and music director Patrick Summers calls Heggie “…a populist in a field in which vestiges of old paradigms are zealously clung to…” and claims that the composer is “… bringing opera back to the people.” I don’t see how It’s a Wonderful Life could possibly become a piece that families, especially those with young children, would want to return to year after year.