It’s A Wonderful Life

Reviewer's Rating

The 1946 Frank Capra film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was not a success when new, but has since become an indispensable part of Christmas, adapted successfully into many different art forms. It is surpassing rare to find a film with a genuinely universal message that continues to resonate powerfully from generation to generation. But the simple point that all lives are valuable for the way they touch and intertwine themselves with others – that ‘no one is a failure who has friends’ – is one we all still need to hear during dark times.

It is surprising that this collaboration between Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer is the first attempt at an operatic setting, but it is a challenge they rise to with triumphant success. They do so by preserving the essence of the original while making some sensible adaptations along the way. Crucially, they underscore the darkness and distress of the original (threatened suicide, small-town corruption, unrewarded virtue, stunted lives and thwarted dreams) without which the final reprieve and redemption would be too easy. Scheer provides a very skilful libretto that provides exposition and emotional focal points while leaving room for Heggie’s lyrical melodic gifts and imaginative orchestration to take over and deliver the emotional high points – this is classic ‘showing’, rather than ‘telling.’

The story echoes the morality tale of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, by giving us the life of George Bailey, whose early dreams of travel, college and escape from his hometown of Bedford Falls are continually thwarted by the actions of others, whether innocent or malign. He stays home to take over his father’s ‘Buildings and Loan’ bank, defending it at great cost to himself against the attempts by Mr Potter, the local slum landlord, to close it down. At all points he puts the interest of others over his own, with the one supportive constant being the love of his wife, Mary Hatch, who similarly chooses the local adventure of life with George over the attractions of New York City. He is driven to the point of suicide at which point ‘Angel Second Class’, Clara Odbody intervenes….

Director Aletta Collins is also the choreographer here and that helps ensure that the big, crowded chorus numbers move with naturalistic flair and poise and that the full scope of the Coliseum’s vast stage is always in use even with more intimate scenes. The set by Giles Cadle is flexible with many moving parts and moments of magical surprise, as you need in a Christmas show, especially one that operates between two worlds. In the pit, regular Heggie collaborator, Nicole Paiement, coaxes characterful sounds from the large orchestra and supports the complex ensembles carefully so that the singers rarely seem under pressure.

The level of singing and plausible acting is very high across the board. As Angel Clara, Danielle de Niese is really in her element as the empathetic commentator and narrator. She is hardly off the stage in a huge role that – without revealing too much – involves singing in some fairly unusual locations. Tenor Frederick Ballantine shows a maturity beyond his years in registering George’s goodness and frustrations as he ages. He is well matched by Jennifer France as his wife, Mary, who brings energy and conviction to a role that could easily be saccharine and produces some exquisitely shaded vocal tone. It is crucial to the balance of the piece that there be a convincing, sinister villain, and baritone Michael Mayes delivers this in spades as Mr Potter. Ronald Samm and Donovan Singletary fill out the crucial family roles as Uncle Billy and brother Harry, with excellently rounded performances. The chorus, as usual here, are detailed and precise in their contributions.

This show lands at an unintentionally poignant moment for this company. After recent decisions by the Arts Council opera in the UK has received an overall 30% cut in funding, with ENO now needing the interventions of its own angel to avoid potential closure. One can only hope that this superb production proves to be as timely for them, as it is for us in the coming festive season. When the whole audience rounded off the show with ‘Auld Lang Syne’ you wanted to hope that if the immediate hurdles can be overcome, then regular performances of this opera at Christmas could be as important for ENO’s fortunes in the future as their production of ‘The Mikado’ has been in the past.