“It’s a Wonderful Life,” by Jake Heggie at The London Coliseum. Reviewed by John O’Brien
The holiday season quartet is now complete. To the traditional big three: “A Christmas Carol,” “The Nutcracker” and a Pantomime we can add “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Composed by Jake Heggie in 2016 “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been wowing audiences on the other side of the pond for the last six years. With it’s opening here in London last night we too can enjoy this heartwarming and uplifting seasonal treat.
It’s a show full of amazing visual razzle dazzle, spine-tingling music, delightful choreography, fine acting, but above all, mesmerising singing encompassing arias, duets, ensembles and full company belters.
What a treat.
This really is opera for all. Sadly this may be the first and last run at The London Coliseum due to the Arts Council’s decision to end all funding to English National Opera. So now’s the time to both support ENO and indulge in some holiday season comfort opera.
In 1843 Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” exactly one hundred years later in 1943 Philip Van Doren Stern wrote the short story “The Greatest Gift,” itself based on Dickens’ classic. In 1946 Frank Capra turned the story into the much loved film, “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart. In 2016 the American composer Jake Heggie teamed up with the librettist, lyricist and song writer Gene Scheer to create this operatic version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Their stated aim is to create an accessible opera which will entertain and delight audiences, especially those with no previous experience of opera. “It’s a Wonderful Life” promises to give new life to opera itself. A fantastic achievement and a landmark event in the history of opera as an art form.
The story of George Bailey (Frederick Ballentine) is well known to anyone who has ever seen the film, so there is no need to repeat that here. Rather than attempt to copy Capra’s masterpiece, Scheer plays with the storylines to allow opera to do what it does best: music and the human voice together reaching as deep as possible into our feelings and emotions. Obviously for that to work you need a superb orchestra and top notch singers. This production has both in abundance. The music flows with an ease and mellifluousness that is most pleasing to the ear. This is partly down to Heggie’s idea of opera as inclusive but also down to the skill with which Nicole Paiement conducts the musicians in the pit. The singing is always crisp, clear and compelling. The acting and dance scenes are superbly directed and imaginatively choreographed by Aletta Collins fresh from her BAFTA winning work on the film “Belfast” (2021).
The creative team of Giles Cadle; sets, Gabrielle Dalton; costumes, Andreas Fuchs; lighting and Nick Lidster; sound – all deserve a special mention. They have pulled out all the stops to create a spell-binding spectacle. From the gritty realism of the bridge and traffic lights to the moon and stars of heaven, every scene is memorable, vivid and evocative.
Looking down and watching over George Bailey as he attempts to save the good folk of Bedford Falls from falling is his guardian angel Clara (Angel, Second Class) performed by opera’s coolest soprano Danielle de Niece. She brings the house down in the suicide by the bridge scene where she tells a puzzled George, “I can’t drown. I’m already dead.”
Strong supporting performances from Ronald Samm as Uncle Billy, Donovan Singletary as brother Harry Bailey and Jennifer France as Mary Hatch Bailey, George’s wife gives this production strength in depth. Michael Mayes is convincing as the villainous banker Henry F. Potter.
What the people of Ukraine would give to have such a production in Kyiv this holiday season. We should be grateful for what we often take for granted because it truly is…A Wonderful Life.