SF Opera sets holiday mood with gratifying ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

San Francisco Opera’s revised production of Jake Heggie’s opera “It’s a Wonderful Life” in its West Coast premiere is a feel-good holiday-themed piece, even as it could add some “fixins” to make it closer to a feast.

Opening Saturday evening at the War Memorial Opera House, the co-commission and co-production with the Houston Grand Opera and Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music is loosely based on Frank Capra’s eponymous 1946 classic film and Philip Van Doren Stern’s story “The Greatest Gift.” Heggie and his go-to librettist Gene Scheer reimagine the tale with director Leonard Foglia and set designer Robert Brill’s staging of portals between reality and fantasy and past and present.

One major difference between the film and the opera is apparent from the outset: The guardian angel Clarence doesn’t visually appear until late in the movie. But in the opera, the female spirit Clara shows up right away. Powerful soprano Golda Schultz literally and figuratively soared, particularly with her inspirational aria “Mustn’t Fail.”

Clara is trying to help George Bailey, the work’s central character whose routine small-town life has gone to financial ruin and thoughts of suicide. As George, tenor William Burden sounded a bit strained at first, but he settled into a smooth sonority and helped carry along an otherwise slow-moving Act 1.

While the connection between George and Clara seemed distant at first, there was instant warmth between George and his brother Harry (resonant baritone Joshua Hopkins), as well as with George’s sweetheart and bride-to-be Mary Hatch, sung by radiant soprano Andriana Chuchman making a fine impression for her SFO debut. Her rendition of Mary’s end-of-adolescence aria “Goodbye, Bedford High” was especially touching.

George and Mary’s relationship took a turn for the silly with the introduction of a purportedly Fijian dance called the Mekee-Mekee, which came across as contrived. But other show tune-style routines — such as the Act 2 opening in which Bedford Falls’ panicked townspeople trigger a run on the Bailey family’s bank — were more relevant to the plot and mood.

It wasn’t appealing, either, when spoken word took over and the music stopped when Clara granted George’s wish that he had never been born. The pivotal morality play-like development, as George realizes his impact on so many people and events, could have been expressed with greater vibrance and poignancy through song, which Heggie, a talented craftsman of melody, clearly could have provided.

But the pace and charm of Act 2 picked up quite nicely, culminating in a satisfying affirmation of George’s worth and the resounding, glittering show stopper “No One Is a Failure Who Has Friends.”

Conductor Patrick Summers deftly guided the orchestra through the potpourri-like score and Ian Robertson’s chorus ably provided welcome vocal verve and season’s greetings.

REVIEW

It’s a Wonderful Life
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20, Nov. 29, Dec. 1, Dec. 4, Dec. 7; 2 p.m. Nov. 24, Nov. 25, Dec. 9
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

James Ambroff-Tahan

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