Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Sheer bring It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s iconic film, to the opera stage in a flowing, tuneful production that manages to follow the original in an insightful and moving production. There’s plenty to talk about with the tuneful and rhythmic music, the fine singing and the good acting by all involved. But probably, the first thing you’ll hear about is the raked set and the rows and rows of doors, they had me thinking of the cartoon Monsters, Inc., and people are going to talk about how the film’s angel Clarence is the opera’s Clara.
Saturday night’s Clara, Anne Slovin was a delight as the wingless, angel 2nd class, who’s assigned to save Bedford Falls’ disappointed George Bailey from drowning himself. She sang beautifully and danced well, always a sympathetic and active figure. For the angel to earn her wings, she has to save George, but first she needs to get to know him. We and Clara follow George through his life.
Terrence Chin-Loy was George, a dynamic singer-actor as the reluctant head of the socially conscious Bedford Falls Saving and Loan. George’s dreams of military glory were destroyed by the icy swim that saved his brother Harry. George’s hopes for travel ended with the sudden death of his father. George’s own college plans end when the brother that he saved marries and takes a job with the bride’s father. Love does come to George and yes, we do get to see him and Virginia Mims as the spirted wife to be Mary take that dip in the high school pool. Later travel plans with Mary end with the Savings and Loans needs in the crash of ’29.
World War II comes and brother Harry, sung by Ian Murrell, becomes an overseas war hero while bitterly homebound George leads conservation efforts, scrap metal drives and bond rallies.
The last straw, the thing that brings him and Clara to the bridge is the threat of the savings and loans failure and jail for George. His Uncle Billy, an engaging Andrew Flanagin, has lost an eight thousand dollar deposit. Actually, it’s been stolen by the avaricious wheel chair bound Henry Potter, played with cold gall by David Tahere. But neither Billy, nor George nor the bank examiner and the sheriff are in on the theft.
George blows up at Uncle Billy, blames his wife, blames his children and mostly blames himself for what he sees as an empty, unfulfilled, valueless life.
Its Clara’s job to show him what would have happened if he’d never been born. The troops Harry saved would have died. The beloved uncle would have ended life in a mad house. The evil Henry Potter would have prevailed and the vicious town would even bear the name of Pottersville. The town’s people whom Clara heard praying for George at the beginning of the opera turn out and contribute more than enough to cover the bank’s losses. As in the film, George sees that indeed he has been a success and the beauty of his home town.
For a closing there’s a festive gathering of the cast that stretches all the way from one side of the wide stage to the other. This wasn’t enough to get a standing ovation Saturday night, but when the cast invited us to sing along on “Auld Lang Syne,” we rose and sang along.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a co production with the Houston Grand Opera, the IU Opera Theater and the San Francisco Opera. This maiden voyage of the opera is a traveling show. Leonard Foglia’s direction, the sets of Robert Brill lit by Brian Nason with projections by Elaine McCarthy, the costumes of David Woolard and the sound design of E. M. Gimenez have come from Houston. When the show wraps up in Bloomington, all will be sent on to San Francisco. IU’s own David Neely, who directed Heggie and Scheer’s Dead Man Walking, conducted the IU student Production.
The IU Opera Theater’s production of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s it’s a Wonderful Life has final performances Thursday November 16th and Friday November 17th
You can find this review and an interview with composer Jake Heggie at WFIU dot ORG/ARTS
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker