Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, London Coliseum

Jake Heggie's 2016 opera based on Frank Capra's 1946 film has much to say about theatre, and life, today

By: Nov. 27, 2022
Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, London Coliseum
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Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, London Coliseum If, like me, you've wondered where the dividing line is drawn between opera and musical theatre, the West End offers an interesting contrast this Christmas season. Elf is at The Dominion Theatre; It's A Wonderful Life is at the Coliseum, both based on much loved Hollywood movies, both unabashedly American, both telling their stories through music and words.

But, and librettist, Gene Scheer writes with great clarity on this point in the programme, while the musical prioritises the tools of drama in its engagement with its audience; the opera leans into the emotional heft of music. The lines are fuzzy, but they're there, and both forms are all the better for it.

Even if you haven't seen Frank Capra's 1946 film which, like The Shawshank Redemption was met with a muted response on its cinematic release before ascending to classic status through word of mouth and repeated viewings on television, George Bailey's story will be familiar.

He's the smalltown banker, whose ambitions to explore the wider world were thwarted, but who did right by his community in resisting a slum landlord, found genuine love with his childhood sweetheart and has earned his status as a pillar of society. When he faces financial ruin, he questions his life decisions until his guardian angel, with wings to win, visits him in his darkest hour and shows him what life would have been like were he never to have been born.

Frederick Ballentine leads with charisma and presence enough to fill a vast stage, his crystal clear tenor equally suited to the disappointment and despair as it is to the redemption and rejoicing that defines George Bailey's narrative arc. He is beautifully supported by soprano, Danielle De Niese, as his guardian, Clara, an observer initially, not short of a wry comment or two, who intervenes at just the right moment. Feel free to insert your own 'Voice of an Angel' cliché here.

They get tremendous support from Jennifer France as the long-suffering Mary Hatch Bailey, whose cookie-cutter American housewife role we can forgive as she transcends its limitations with singing that explores a teenager in love as much as a soulmate spouse. Roland Samm is splendid as the inadvertent author of George's near-fatal misfortune, carrying his bumbling Uncle Billy beautifully, as does Michael Mayes as Mr Potter, the villain who holds a town in his hands, slowly crushing its spirit.

Where the English National Opera scores (and why it needs support in its time of need) shows most in the work of the chorus and orchestra.

Under Aletta Collins direction, the townspeople and a quartet of angels underline key scenes with the power of voices raised in harmony, the thrill of collective singing washing through the house. The ENO chorus are in top form, if anything a little underused, especially in a low key first act that could use a little lift at times, but come into their own as, with some poignancy for our times, they clamour for the means to support their families, innocent victims of decisions made far from their home town in the interconnected capitalist world.

Star of the show, under the baton of Nicole Paiement, is the ENO orchestra (facing a suddenly uncertain future itself), which delivers Jake Heggie's score with power and sensitivity. If you did not catch how the music was carrying the story, the ten minutes when instruments are put down and spoken words explain the world as it would have been without the presence of George, reveal how much work the orchestra has been doing and, yes, that crucial border between opera and musical theatre (both a delight of course).

With the future of the ENO hanging by a thread, let's hope a few guardian angels protect its future. We do not need a London made that little more colourless, more flat, more silent - more like Bedford Falls without George Bailey.

It's A Wonderful Life is at the London Coliseum until 10 December

Photo Credit: Lloyd Winters