It requires true optimism to make the opening night after the Arts Council’s abrupt axing of English National Opera’s £12.8 million grant into a celebration, but It’s a Wonderful Life, American composer Jake Heggie’s Christmas premiere for the Coliseum, has a plot line that somehow fits the occasion.
The show, directed and choreographed by Aletta Collins, opens to a burst of shooting stars, whirling clouds and snowstorms. We see a man, George Bailey, on a bridge at Christmas Eve midnight, in despair over his failed life. Bankruptcy looms and suicide beckons. George’s guardian angel, Clara, who is on suicide watch, has to convince him that his life is actually a success because of what he has brought to his family and community. In a change from the male angel Clarence of Frank Capra’s original 1946 film, superstar soprano Danielle de Niese brings glamour and a gorgeous voice to the childlike innocent Clara, who’s eager to earn her wings and be promoted to the level of First Class Angels.
Through changing scenes of designer Giles Cadle’s colourful wide canopy studded with stars we watch the past life of George Bailey as he is forced progressively to abandon his dreams of going to college or travelling to Europe to view the Parthenon and the Coliseum. Instead, family circumstances force him to be anchored in sleepy Bedford Falls to keep the Bailey building-and-loans bank going during the times of the Wall Street Crash, and other disasters. These include a relentless attack by local developer Henry F. Potter who aims to turn Bedford Falls into Potterville, and will stoop to any ploy, including theft, to get his way.
The most powerful scene is where George, exhausted after nine years of financial turbulence, decides to accept Potter’s offer of employment as a highly paid executive. There’s a distinct whiff of a Faustian pact being signed, until George violently rejects the offered handshake. At times it’s frankly a bit saccharine, but as Philip Van Doren Stern’s original short story The Greatest Gift was inspired by Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, it goes with the territory.
The excellent cast is led by American tenor Frederick Ballentine, an energised performer of choreographed numbers. British star soprano Jennifer France gives a beautifully nuanced performance as George’s long-suffering wife Mary, and baritone Michael Mayes is satisfyingly villainous as Potter. The show runs in tandem with The Yeomen of the Guard until 10 December. Meanwhile English National Opera’s fight to retain the London Coliseum, its home since 1968, has begun with a petition to sign on its website demanding the reinstatement of ACE funding immediately.
Conductor: Nicole Paiement
Director: Aletta Collins
Set designer: Giles Cadle
Costume designer: Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting designer: Andreas Fuchs
Sound designer: Nick Lidster
Choreographer: Aletta Collins
Production pictures: Lloyd Winters