It’s a Wonderful Life
Patti LuPone, William Burden, Talise Trevigne, Andrea Carroll, Rod Gilfry, Joshua Hopkins, Anthony Dean Griffey; Houston Grand Opera and Chorus/Patrick Summers
Pentatone PTC 5186 631 (hybrid CD/SACD)
It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t only the title of the 1946 Frank Capra movie regularly placed in Christmas TV schedules to spread good cheer and a fuzzy sense of community spirit. Since December 2016 it’s also been an opera, premiered and co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera from Jake Heggie and his regular librettist Gene Scheer. One change from the film is immediately obvious: the charmingly whimsical guardian angel trying to prevent the suicide of the ordinary, good small-town citizen George Bailey has had a sex change. He’s now a she, smarter too, and vibrantly sung by Talise Trevigne. Otherwise, the story rolls on much as before, from George’s Christmas Eve despair, through flashbacks of his selfless life, to angelic intervention and a sickly but heartfelt curtain line: ‘Noone is a failure who has friends.’
The spirited cast and Pentatone’s bouncy live recording ensure a performance with plenty of conviction, though the prologue, laden with hovering angels and the loudspeaker voice of Patti LuPone, obstinately stays an aural muddle. Heggie’s eclectic tonal music is light on lyrical flights and rhythmically overly rigid, but the accomplished orchestral writing satisfyingly conjures up appropriate moods of ardour and longing. William Burden’s lively tenor brings new life to a hero long associated with James Stewart’s drawl, while Andrea Carroll, if a bit lacking in volume, easily conveys the sweetness and purity of George’s soulmate Mary. Not a great opera, maybe, but a useful one to have on hand in these dark, divisive times.