Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
A whiplash produces an overflowing basket of banknotes towards the end of English National Opera’s new production It’s a wonderful life. It’s just one of many ironies about the timing of this piece, staged as the company deals with the devastating loss of its £12.8m Arts Council funding. “No matter how your story ends, no one is a loser who has friends,” sings the curtain refrain, and God knows, ENO needs friends right now, because life is far from wonderful.
Whatever your take on this sugary confection, based entirely on Frank Capra’s 1946 film, no one could describe ENO’s production (first seen in Houston in 2016) as a failure. Is it an opera? Is it a musical? Does it really matter when it’s sung with such verve and staged with such panache? Probably not, and if it attracts a new audience that’s definitely a good thing.
However, in a recent interview, its composer, Jake Heggie, said that he writes “musicals for opera singers and opera houses”. Well, up to a point. Musicals usually feature at least a couple of great numbers that you can whistle on your way home. You will find none in this show. Instead, Heggie is a master of pastiche: we feel the influence of Bernstein, Korngold, vaudeville and barbershops, even Schoenberg. The orchestration is often pure Hollywood, lush and creamy like a chocolate eclair, but the vocal writing can be edgy, sometimes atonal, particularly for Clara, the guardian angel.
Yes, Clare. Clarence, the angel who appears towards the end of the film, is here replaced by a soprano who takes center stage from the beginning, observing firsthand the life of poor and frustrated George Bailey, a change in history which also sees welcome several castings (a true ENO force) rephrasing the focus of the entire piece. Danielle de Niese as Clara sings, appropriately, like an angel, bringing vital energy to the role, and rousing tenor Frederick Ballentine plays a dashing George, though he has a hard work playing opposite star soprano Jennifer France, who dazzles as his wife, Mary. Tenor Ronald Samm does a great job as bumbling Uncle Billy.
Giles Cadle’s mesmerizing set is dotted with stars, moons and snowflakes that sparkle under the light design by Andreas Fuchs. Costume designer Gabrielle Dalton enjoys dressing the big company in 1920s to late 1940s fashions, while director and choreographer Aletta Collins and conductor Nicole Paiement keep it all moving (a movie difference). Librettist Gene Scheer stays remarkably close to the original dialogue, articulating radical ideas about the cost of living, mortgages, housing, rents and profiteering – powerful topics today. There’s even a proto Trump in the piece’s villainous panto, unscrupulous financier Henry F Potter, beautifully sung by baritone Michael Mayes.
When the suicidal George laments that he wishes he had never been born, the music stops. Clara shows him what a harsh and disharmonious world it would be if he hadn’t lived, with the music returning only when he finds his way back to real life. If nothing else, this warm and deeply sentimental production shows us how much poorer our world would be if ENO’s music stopped and we were left without it.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra, under its Chief Conductor Edward Gardner, is currently exploring the ideas of exile and belonging in a pertinent season entitled A place to call home. One of the most powerful protests of the 20th century against displacement and injustice is Michael Tippett’s too rarely performed oratorio A child of our time (1944), which focuses on Kristallnacht, the night Nazi hatred for the Jewish people turned into a stark and cruel reality. He draws on African American spirituals, the music of another oppressed people, to deliver a universal message of pain, protest and boundless compassion.
The London Philharmonic Choir, with the London Adventist Chorale, sang Tippett’s deeply moving score with precision and authority, particularly in his wonderful reworking of Steal Away, Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Go Down, Moses and Deep River. Special mention here for the sopranos, who delivered the most dangerous vocal line, “We are lost, we are like seed in the wind,” with consummate ease. Tippett models the piece in the 18th-century manner, with soloists expounding the narrative and commenting on the action. Here, Nadine Benjamin excelled, her bright, clean soprano soaring above the spirituals like a blazing comet. Mezzo Sarah Connolly and baritone Roderick Williams, looking back admiringly, were engaged and eloquent companions, though tenor Kenneth Tarver seemed more aloof.
Nature and music have been meeting in harmony for 50 years at Prussia Cove, on the rugged Cornish coast. Idea for a celebration of International seminar of musicians, founded there in 1972 to maintain the highest standards of European music-making, with a roster of maestros and alumni that reads like a Who’s Who of the classical world. Artistic director Steven Isserlis gathered a galaxy of exceptional talent at London’s Wigmore Hall last weekend to mark the milestone. Violinist Sini Simonen shined in the closing concert, persuading her colleagues through an ecstatic reading of Dvořák’s String Quintet in G; Thomas Adès drove Bartók’s strident, frenetic Contrasts from the keyboard, with clarinetist Matthew Hunt and violinist Jonian Ilias Kadesha running alongside. But perhaps the most memorable moment came in the cheerful opening of Brahms’ Clarinet Trio in A minor, where Hunt, pianist Dénes Várjon and cellist Alice Neary ran up and down the pianissimo scales like fluffy-pawed kittens they play in the snow.
Star ratings (out of five)
It’s a wonderful life ★★★★
A child of our time ★★★★
ISM Prussian Bay ★★★★★