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Opera review: It’s a Wonderful Life by Jake Heggie

23 December 2022

An opera based on a famous Christmas film cheered Fiona Hook

© Lloyd Winters

The ensemble in Jake Heggie’s opera It’s a Wonderful Life, staged in December by the English National Opera at the Coliseum

The ensemble in Jake Heggie’s opera It’s a Wonderful Life, staged in December by the English National Opera at the Coliseum

ANYONE producing an operatic version of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film It’s a Wonderful Life has some big shoes to fill. The composer Jake Heggie and the director/choreographer Aletta Collins have succeeded brilliantly in bringing to the English National Opera’s Coliseum stage in London the story of George Bailey, a small-town guy who has put other people first all his life, only to find that they rally round when he needs them most.

We open with a sky full of shooting stars, where George’s guardian angel sits aloft on a swing, counting prayers. Yet, to gain her angelic wings, Danielle de Niese’s gauche, radiant Clara will accompany us as guide and awestruck narrator as the various doors of Giles Cadle’s grey corridor set are opened on scenes from George’s life.

In a pleasing departure from the original, the Bailey family is African-American, and the townsfolk are a mixture. Frederick Ballentine’s genial George bears the constant thwarting of his plans to travel the world with unabated cheerfulness. Jennifer France as his wife, Mary, radiates loving domestic virtue, and Ronald Samm does an impressive comic turn as confused Uncle Billy, whose absent-mindedness precipitates the family business into disaster. No Christmas opera is complete without a really good villain, and Michael Mayes was an imposing Potter, under a lit-up dollar sign, bent on taking over the town, and driving the Baileys’ company to extinction.

Clara’s task, of course, is to save George from taking his own life when he faces ruin, which she does by showing him what the world would have been if he had never existed. In this bleak alternative universe, the light and music die, only to return when George, choosing life, embraces his little daughter. In a gorgeously sentimental finale, Clara gains her wings, and the entire company sings “No matter how your story ends, No one is a failure who has friends,” a timely reminder that we are, as St Paul said, all limbs one of another.

Nicole Paiement conducted the ever-versatile ENO orchestra in an instantly accessible, hum-along score that drew on jazz, Sondheim, and little hints of Copland. The librettist, Gene Scheer, made skilful use of the film script to drive the story along between songs. There was some lovely dancing, notably George doing the Meekee Meekee, and the production number “Farewell Bedford High”. And, at the end, we all sang “Auld Lang Syne” with the cast, which sent us into the cold of a December night feeling very happy indeed.

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