English National Opera – Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life – Danielle de Niese, Frederick Ballentine & Michael Mayes; directed by Aletta Collins; conducted by Nicole Paiement

Heggie

It’s a Wonderful Life – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Gene Scheer based on the eponymous film and The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern [sung in English with English surtitles]

George Bailey – Frederick Ballentine
Clara – Danielle de Niese
Uncle Billy – Ronald Samm
Harry Bailey – Donovan Singletary
Mary Hatch Bailey – Jennifer France
Henry F. Potter – Michael Mayes
Ernie – Alex Otterburn
Helen Bailey – Segomotso Masego Shupinyanen
Mother Bailey – Gweneth Ann Rand
Angels – Keri Fuge, Idunnu Münch, Zwakele Tshabalala & Ossian Huskinson

English National Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Nicole Paiement

Aletta Collins – Director & Choreographer
Giles Cadle – Set Designer
Gabrielle Dalton – Costume Designer
Andreas Fuchs – Lighting Designer
Nick Lidster – Sound Designer


3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 25 November, 2022
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Jake Heggie has recently been gaining more attention in the UK, having achieved success in his native America for the wide range of his compositions. Dead Man Walking was seen at the Barbican in a semi-staged performance a few years ago, and other works have been mounted in London. But this is the first performance of his opera It’s a Wonderful Life (2016) in the UK, based upon Frank Capra’s well-loved 1946 film.

This operatic rendering remains generally faithful to the film’s narrative outline, though with two notable changes. Clarence, the guardian angel second class, who comes to save George Bailey from suicide, is turned into Clara, given an impish, feisty performance here by Danielle de Niese. Musically that works well as the soprano voice corresponds better to the ethereal nature that many will associate with angelic beings. And, in an opera dominated by male voices, that provides welcome, celestial contrast. The other significant directorial intervention in Aletta Collins’s new production for English National Opera is to make the Bailey family a black one, in a provincial, mid-twentieth-century American town, which will have apt resonances in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

So far, so culturally modish. But neither the operatic adaptation nor the production interrogates or critiques the underlying assumptions of self-congratulatory bourgeois materialism and individualism of the original scenario. George may have carried out a number of good works, to the benefit of his immediate family and the community in Bedford Falls, including overseeing the building of homes through his family company Bailey Building & Loan. But how nice that he is lucky to have such resources in the first place and to have wealthy, well-connected friends who can help him out in his moment of need (one is reminded of Mrs Thatcher’s morally dubious interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan that he was only remembered because he had money, in addition to his good intentions). No voice is given to those whose welfare and self-respect actually depends upon the whims of such private benefactions and goodwill, and whether they can flourish in such demeaning, precarious circumstances. By contrast, even the Tories in post-War Britain generally saw no problem with the consensus politics of dependable and regular provision of housing and social welfare by the state as a natural legal right which citizens could expect.

Instead, the narrative turns on George’s self-esteem, and his success is still measured in terms of material prosperity and a happily conventional, domesticated family life, in a set-up that would make the Daily Mail proud. If George’s travelling ambitions to go and ‘see the Colosseum and the Parthenon’ had been repeated one more time I’d happily have bought him the plane ticket myself to stop that inane verbal tick once and for all (whatever deeper value there is in going around ‘to see’ the great historical monuments of the world, as though an exercise in collecting loyalty points in some elaborate game of cultural consumption, it is not explained). The simplified, linear plot as an almost picaresque succession of many short scenes across two Acts, aided by a cliché-ridden libretto of weak turns of phrase and imagery bearing little relation to the original film’s dialogue, reduces the drama to a sentimental Sunday school tale.

Visually the production at least gets that element right with its cartoonish, starry-vaulted set from which cells open out, like drawers in a giant cabinet, to reveal different phases of George’s life as it unfolds again before Clara. (In a possibly vain hope to discern any deeper allusions in the opera, one wonders if there is some reference to Tamino approaching the doors of Sarastro’s temple as Clara probes the different openings on stage here. And does her measuring of the amount of time that has elapsed in her angelic apprenticeship at the work’s beginning and end in some sense correspond to Figaro’s measuring the space for his wedding bed at the opening of Mozart’s masterpiece?) But in any case, only the singers’ somewhat exaggerated American accents gives much indication of place for significant stretches, and any historical detail seems incidental. Overall, any moral or categorical imperative to be derived from the story is missing. How much more incisive are Salieri’s opera Tarare or Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire as examinations sub specie aeternitatis of human nature and the human world in order to unsettle radically an audience’s assumptions or prejudices.

The best that can be said for the opera is that it is a ‘feel-good’ work, like many Broadway shows, but even then it isn’t really a musical either, as the score lacks any sustained songs or set pieces, but simply chugs along like accompanying film music (however well crafted). Just as it starts to blossom into something like a sub-Richard Strauss or Max Steiner orchestral sweep, that quickly disappears. There’s no doubting the commitment of Nicole Paiement and the ENO Orchestra to the score as they evoke some glistening textures to conjure the starry firmament or snow-laden skies for instance, or the warmth of communal solidarity in the concluding chorus. The vocal writing is largely declamatory – despite the programme notes stating that ‘George’s tenor role is a lyric tour-de-force’ – and so the cast have comparatively little (in musical terms) to flex their voices with, other than to deliver the text in half-sung discourse with reasonable clarity. Whether by accident or design it is the unsympathetic, profiteering businessman Mr Potter who has a more effusive musical role, given an urgent interpretation by Michael Mayes that sounds very much like John Tomlinson in vocal weight.

If the work offers little for either opera or musicals enthusiasts, then it will ostensibly interest those who love the film; but they are likely to be disappointed by this kitsch, banal transformation for the stage. The production may prove to be just for this Christmas, rather than for life.

Further performances to December 10

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