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It’s A Wonderful Life

by on 26 November 2022

Opera Goes to the Movies

It’s A Wonderful Life

by Jake Heggie, libretto by Gene Scheer

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 10th December

Review by Patrick Shorrock

I must admit that I find the current trend of staging films rather perplexing, whether it is Moulin Rouge, Back to the Future, or Single Man.  Theatre managements clearly like a product where the audience will know what they are getting.  But there is still a sense where – like film sequels – they are likely to disappoint and seem a little unadventurous.  Inevitably, staging a film loses much of what makes the original distinctive – particularly the original performers and the editing.  The more it takes on a life of its own, the further away it seems from what made the original source distinctive.

It is even harder to turn a film into an opera, where the dialogue will generally have to be rewritten, the words will require a different delivery when sung, and the original music has to be replaced.  It’s a Wonderful Life is ENO’s second go at the challenge of an operatic version of a film after Philip Glass’s intriguing Orphée last seasonThere is much to enjoy here, even if I am yet to be convinced that films turned into operas is the way to go.

Certainly nobody needs to worry about Jake Heggie’s pleasing and accessible score alienating those who prefer their operas with tunes.  And it is definitely an opera rather than a musical with delusions of grandeur.  Very much through-composed, and not a sequence of separate numbers, it relies heavily on real operatic voices, and is scrupulous about not making its effects by simply upping the sugar content.  That said, the score is a bit bland and unvarying – particularly in the first half, despite Nicole Paiement’s fluent conducting.  But there are some lovely vocal opportunities (and challenges) for the singers, with long exposed high notes for them to unfurl and sustain, which they all did beautifully.

Wisely perhaps, there is no attempt at a carbon copy of the film.  Heggie and his librettist Gene Scheer change Clarence, the second class angel without any wings, into Clara and give the part to a soprano.  Danielle de Niese’s poised performance is heavier on charm than vulnerability.  She takes flight at the end, but, oddly, Aletta Collins’s production and Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes don’t give her (or the other angels) wings.  The James Stewart part is given to the immensely talented black tenor, Frederick Ballentine, who masters the challenges of this heavy vocal part and has the stage presence to make it completely his own.  I do wonder whether a mixed race marriage would have gone down so well in small town America in the 1930s, but it was great to see lots of black singers on the Coliseum stage in a production that wasn’t Porgy and Bess.  It is not as though Capra’s film is aiming for searing realism.  This kind of creative rethinking is exactly what is needed to give the film operatic life.

The score and libretto don’t quite manage the bleak darkness of the original film.  We don’t quite feel the constricting limiting claustrophobic nature of the small town in the way that we do in the film, even though characters complain about it.  The suicidal feelings of George Bailey are not captured by either music or production with quite the sense of horror that Frank Capra and James Stewart achieve in the film.  I’m surprised that more is not made musically of the child hammering out Hark the Herald Angels Sing on the piano, as George sinks under the stress of potential shame and bankruptcy.  That said, the absence of vocal music, as George is confronted by a world where he has never been born, is a masterstroke.

Giles Cadle’s sets are extremely inventive, without duplicating the film, whether providing heavenly starscapes (with some stunning special effects) or small town houses.  The rest of the cast is excellent, particularly Jennifer France as Mary Hatch Bailey.  Her ability to spin out stratospheric sustained high notes is extremely impressive.  After a similar turn in Orphée, operas of films seems to be becoming something of a speciality for her, although I would love to hear her in more conventional operatic roles too.  Other stand outs in the cast included Michael Mayes’ nasty Potter, Alex Otterburn’s Ernie, and Gwyneth Ann Rand’s Mother.

As with the film, you begin by resisting the sentimentality and protesting at the naivety, but eventually succumb, although, unlike the film, the music doesn’t quite consistently sustain the note of elation overcoming desperation right through to the end, with the audience singalong to Auld lang syne feeling rather tacked on.  This isn’t one of ENO’s very finest evenings, but is still a worthwhile experience, a considerable achievement, and ample evidence of what a disaster it would be to the operatic life of this country if English National Opera had never existed.  I hope the Arts Council takes note.

Patrick Shorrock, November 2022

Photography by Lloyd Winters

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