Opera + Classical Music Reviews

It’s A Wonderful Life review: ENO serves up a festive helping of Americana

26 November 2022

Part opera, part musical, did Heggie’s adaptation of Capra’s classic film pack a similar emotional punch?

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: ENO)

Programming the UK premiere of American composer Jake Heggie’s adaptation of Frank Capra’s 40s’ classic It’s A Wonderful Life, to a libretto by Gene Scheer, was a bold move. It’s been staged many times in the States, and on the surface it’s not hard to see why. Heggie’s musical idiom is broadly traditional, tonal, and contains nothing that could remotely frighten the horses – all reasons no doubt why it’s gone down so well with American audiences. But at the opening night at the Coliseum last Friday this approach raised a lot of questions – most pressingly whether Heggie’s adaptation had added anything to the original film by turning it into a piece with music for the stage, and more fundamentally, what constitutes an opera?

The main problem with the score is that it sits in a kind of musical no man’s land, not catchy enough to be a musical, nor profound enough to be an opera. And by trying to be all things to everyone, it never finds its equilibrium. The point of opera, surely, is that the music is there to elevate and drive the drama, adding an interpretive layer that’s simply not possible with the spoken word. Opera needs to excite our senses, pull on our heart strings, and, through the power of music and singing, have a transformative effect on the audience. Unfortunately none of that happened here. Heggie’s musical idiom is redolent of Rodgers and Bernstein yet with neither of those composers’ flair or originality. Very little happened musically in the first act – the 50 minutes dragged, in no small part due to the lack of variety in the vocal lines and orchestration – it was sickly-sweet to the point of being cloying. 

There was more of the same in the second act, and in the opera’s key encounter between Clara the Angel and the opera’s protagonist George Bailey, the music stopped completely, and in its place the two characters spoke, which seemed to go on forever. Did Heggie’s version add anything to the original? Not according to my companion, a huge fan of the film. Ultimately there isn’t enough contrast in the score, nor are there any flashes of inspiration – it’s all far too four-square. 

“…the opening night at the Coliseum… raised a lot of questions…”

The company had left no stone unturned however to do it proud, most notably in the fine cast it had assembled. As in The Yeomen of the Guard, each member of the cast was miked. Was this to compensate for some relatively light voices among the singers, or to help get the dialogue across in the second act? Possibly both, but any amplification was done subtly. Soprano Danielle de Niese, on stage for the entire opera, was a vivacious, heart-warming presence as Clara, the Angel – singing with poise throughout, her crystalline soprano never having sounded so brilliant. Frederick Balantine had his work cut out to register George’s presence next to such a larger than life performer, but he succeeded in gaining the audience’s sympathy with his rich, ringing tenor, which gave notice of a star in the making.

As his wife, Mary, Jennifer France filled out Heggie’s vocal lines thrillingly, producing warm and even tone throughout the role’s formidable range. As a moustache-twirling, pantomime villain, Michael Mayes’ rich, resonant baritone ensured the character of Henry F Potter was three-dimensional – he certainly had no problems with the size of the house, projecting easily throughout the evening. There were no weak links in the cast, while both the chorus and orchestra did their very best with what the composer asked of them – all ably conducted by Nicole Paiement, who evidently knows the score inside out.

Aletta Collins’ directed with a sure touch, the work’s 20 scenes clearly delineated, but Giles Cadle’s sets could have been more magical. They were serviceable, but surely the mythical town of Bedford Falls deserved better. Despite the above misgivings about the work itself, there was no denying the commitment and energy of all involved, and it was a great company show. That English National Opera should now be fighting for its very existence is a national scandal. The Arts Council needs to reverse their funding cut – and if they do, it would be great to see either Christmas Eve or Hansel and Gretel here next year, as both operas have been absent from the repertoire for way too long.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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It’s A Wonderful Life review: ENO serves up a festive helping of Americana