ENO faces possible extinction with a pleasant Christmas opera

Jennifer France and Frederick Ballentine in It’s a Wonderful Life – Lloyd Winters

English National Opera is teetering on the edge of a precipice: in the wake of Arts Council England’s politically motivated and utterly pointless decision to withdraw all funding next April unless it relocates from London, the company is risking the extinction in its present form. The company’s artistic director, Annilese Miskimmon, appeared on stage before the start of this performance – ENO’s first premiere since the cut was announced – to speak about this “devastating” news, which she described simply as the ACE’s decision to stop financing the company. She expressed gratitude for the petition to save it started by singer Bryn Terfel – now with over 60,000 signatures – and for the “love, support and anger” expressed nationally and internationally at the company’s plight. The emotion in her voice was palpable as she dedicated the show to the audience.

For a company looking beyond this dizzying edge to produce an exuberant show with the (in this case) tongue-in-cheek title of It’s a Wonderful Life is pretty smart. Frank Capra’s famous 1946 film starring James Stewart established himself as a Christmas regular and was a natural for the operatic treatment. The story of George Bailey, the naïve but generous romantic of Bedford Falls, driven to contemplate suicide by mounting adversity but saved by the generosity of the people he has helped, assisted by a close angel, is touching and heartbreaking.

Jake Heggie is now one of America’s most performed opera composers: It’s a Wonderful Life was staged by Houston Opera in 2016 and revised for San Francisco in 2018 and is now a Christmas fixture across the United States. Heggie had the advantage of a librettist in Gene Scheer who wasn’t afraid to tamper with the original and shape it as a pleasing opera, adding more angels and removing many of Capra’s darker scenes while retaining his sharpness and wit.

Aletta Collins’ ENO production begins with a spectacular scene in the skies, but is then constrained by Giles Cadle’s dull gray-walled sets that place some of the vital scenes (such as Bailey screaming painfully at her children as stress builds) too far behind the scenes to make their impact. However, Heggie and Scheer’s cleverest coup, transforming the film’s aging male angel Clarence into the glamorous angel Clara, works wonders, especially since Danielle de Niese’s outgoing presence and rhapsodic voice are ideal: she’s on the stage throughout, controlling stage motion by doffing his hat, and swings dizzyingly high in the finale.

Danielle de NieseLloyd Winters

Danielle de NieseLloyd Winters

I was less sure of Frederick Ballentine’s handsome but too soft-voiced George Bailey, lacking the staged drama of James Stewart, though he made an ideal love match to his clear-voiced wife Mary (Jennifer France), whose air extended is one of the best things about the soundtrack. Michael Hayes is almost evil enough as local tycoon Henry F Potter, and Ronald Samm has a great cameo as Uncle Billy, whose carelessly misplaced $8,000 is the root of Bailey’s problems.

Heggie’s music emerges from an American vernacular tradition not so familiar here: echoes of Copland, Bernstein, Menotti and musicals collide with dance sequences that seem glued together. Nicole Paiement conducts with a good understanding of the eclectic idiom: but while it’s effective and enjoyable, I just can’t see It’s a Wonderful Life establishing a regular foothold in the repertoire here.

At the London Coliseum until 10 December. Tickets: AND NO; 020 7845 9300

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