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Cue the guardian angels!

by Philip Campbell

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

Like a boutique dusting of California snow, the West Coast premiere of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer's "It's a Wonderful Life" opened at the San Francisco Opera last week to make a picturesque start for the holiday season. Mostly based on the classic 1946 Frank Capra movie and original source material "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern, the musicalization met with mixed reviews when it was first performed at Houston Grand Opera in 2016. That version has been revised and rejuvenated, and the mood generally brightened for San Francisco. The pace is brisk and characters are drawn in bold strokes as they travel through a big nostalgic Christmas pageant.

It is hard to imagine many who haven't seen the film. By focusing even closer on the life story of George Bailey, the despondent good-guy hero, Heggie and Scheer efficiently allow music and sung dialogue to fill in the blanks for the uninitiated. The restructuring has pluses and minuses. Cheerful episodes and big set-pieces — a production number about patriotic unity during WWII, a high school dance (including a cringeworthy dance hit called the "Mekee-Mekee") and a stirring closing anthem on friendship — make the postcard community of Bedford Falls come to colorful life.

Subtler shadings and insights to individual personalities are diminished by the glare of the show's Hallmark Card sentimentality. Still, the idealistic populism of the town is probably more believable without harder scrutiny.

As for George, a stand-up guy can only take so much. His life is struggle enough without a spiteful foe (Mr. Potter) wickedly plotting to extinguish the last of his dreams. It's enough to bring him to the brink, which is exactly where Angel Second Class Clara (talk about your deus ex machina) intervenes to grant his wish to never have been born.

The sequence that follows is one of the opera's boldest, played in monochromatic shadows, eerily without music. It is a theatrical gamble that makes a powerful point. When George comes back to life, he sings and the lights return to color; the orchestra bubbles back; and Heggie's flowing melodic line courses on to the joyous finale.

William Burden as George Bailey in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheers Its a Wonderful Life. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera  

Set designer Robert Brill, projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, choreographer Keturah Stickann, and director Leonard Foglia, the SFO team responsible for Heggie and Scheer's magnificent "Moby Dick," are back to create another smoothly cinematic production. Doors open, close, rise and fall in the floor and ceiling, representing portals in the flashbacks of George's life. Angels easily ascend and descend, and the entire cast is costumed in vintage clothing designed by David C. Woolard, illuminated by Brian Nason's brilliant lighting design.

The show is stuffed with treats start to finish, as perky and energetic as the very best of Broadway. The score is instantly appealing, and Patrick Summers (another frequent Heggie collaborator) leads the enthusiastic 50-piece orchestra with a pulsing beat and sparkling sheen.

The large cast is excellent, and once one accepts tenor William Burden, who created the role in Houston, looking middle-aged from the start, his expressive tone and committed acting make his portrayal of George Bailey believable. His clear voice also pairs nicely with Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, making a graceful SFO debut as George's loving wife Mary. Their love duet at the end of Act I is beautiful.

Another Canadian in his SFO debut, baritone Joshua Hopkins is appealing as George's brother Harry. Tenor Keith Jameson also debuts impressively as endearingly simple Uncle Billy.

SFO veteran baritone Rod Gilfry has covered a lot of ground since he started hearts racing at the War Memorial as Stanley Kowalski in Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire." Twenty years haven't dimmed his looks, but he has always been a good singing actor, so his portrayal of George's nemesis, bitter old Mr. Potter, convinces. He created the role at the HGO premiere two years ago and still seems to enjoy adding depth to the old codger's nastiness.

Adler Fellows Sarah Cambidge, Ashley Dixon, Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell appear as four Angels First Class, and look spectacular with their wings opened out.

Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus cuts loose, filling a multitude of roles from high school jitterbugs to the good people of Bedford Falls.

As Clara (Clarence in the movie), the angel eager to earn her wings, South African soprano Golda Schultz makes her SFO and role debut with charming innocence and earnest determination. The "heavenly" aspects of the opera and film veer close to mawkishness, but if you're going to have faith in guardian angels, one couldn't do better than believing in Schultz's Clara. Her stratospheric high notes are startlingly pure, and her silvery tone is amusingly contrasted in exchanges with her celestial boss "A Voice," pre-recorded by baritonal Patti LuPone. Even without appearing, she gets laughs. Her contribution also puts some needed booze in the punch bowl.

Heggie and Scheer's lovable opera genuinely wants to please, and makes a most sincere effort without a hint of falseness. It may go on a bit, could still use some editing, and the cuteness quotient is high, but the sentiments are timeless, and the music is irresistible.

"No one is a failure who has friends." When the cast invited us to join in singing "Auld Lang Syne" during the curtain calls, I obliged by smiling my way through. "It's a Wonderful Life" is like a sweet-natured Labrador at a holiday party who thinks he's a lapdog. By the third lick, you just can't help but laugh and hug back.

"It's a Wonderful Life" continues through Dec. 9.


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