ENO Response 2022/23: It's a Wonderful Life Reviews

16th December 2022 in News

ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.

The ENO presents the highly anticipated UK premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life. Composed by Jake Heggie in 2016 with the libretto by Gene Scheer, this is an operatic adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra Christmas classic film, sung in English.

A blended tale of fantasy and drama loosely based on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, a humble man of humble origins in a humble small town. Having sacrificed many of his own dreams to help others around him, George is driven to breakdown, only to be shown by his guardian angel how his life enriches his community in ways he could never imagine.

Jake Heggie (1961)
Libretto by Gene Scheer
Conductor, Nicole Paiement
Director and Choreographer, Aletta Collins

ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.

Andrew Lohmann
It’s a Mediocre Opera

It’s a Wonderful Life is a 2016 opera based on the popular Christmas film from 1946 of the same name. Composed by Jake Heggie, it is a retelling of the story of disillusioned philanthropist George Bailey. We are led through George’s life in an episodic highlights reel of the ups-and-downs of his life, devoted to helping others at his own cost. The “highlights” are being studied by guardian angel Clara who is figuring out how to talk George down from a bridge parapet and prevent his suicide.

While the original film is viewed as a Christmas tradition by many, much of the story lacks any real dramatic cut-and-thrust and relies heavily on George’s character being grown throughout before reacting to one major strife. There are several moving scenes which are accompanied by excellently made emotional music but it is at times excessively saccharine and twee.

As George’s character is developed so too the score develops, memorable melodies returning each time an associated feeling or reference recurs. The opera is also packed with recorded voiceovers and sound effects. I found this grating, it is almost avoiding playing to opera’s unique strengths: excellent stage performers and the ability to exploit an orchestra to produce sound effects, instead aping cinematic styles.

ENO’s production was first class, set designer Giles Cadle and lighting designer Andreas Fuchs have a wonderful symbiosis between their roles ensuring each scene is visually captivating. We are shown each episode of George’s life as a peek through a door in an attic, rationalizing Clara’s perspective but still allowing the opera to have motion through George’s life. Sets use forced perspective well, moving up-and down-stage allows the characters to seamlessly move between the outdoor and the intimate.

Fresh from her successes as Musetta at the Royal Opera House Danielle de Niese is the watchful Clara. de Niese is a shining stage presence and her light soprano voice is aptly heavenly.

Tenor Frederick Ballentine is George Bailey, Ballentine has no problems finding the emotional tone in the role as successive scenes raise and lower Bailey’s outlook on life. Donovan Singletary is George’s more successful brother and (perhaps deliberately) frequently overshadows Ballentine.

The score is technically well made but is heavily redolent of a broad swathe of influences. Notably contemporary and romantic opera, films and American musicals. The resulting effect is a sort of musical chimera, blending inspirations from past innovators instead of breaking new ground. Similarly, the opera’s plot is based on a film, based on a book. The full effect is of a teetering jenga tower of references. I felt Heggie was stood on the shoulders of giants but seemed more interested in looking at their feet than seeing further.

Alexander Russell
Utterly Delightful


Turn the schmaltz up to eleven, Jake Heggie’s ‘It’s a wonderful life’ manages to do the impossible and somehow creates a more sentimental version of the already sweet 1946 Frank Capra Christmas classic. The biggest surprise however is how delightful this turns out to be. The easily accessible score and libretto combined with the joyful casting and staging combines to create an evening of genuine glee, a syrupy balm for our troubled times.


This is ‘It’s a wonderful life’ but not as you know it. The production chose to make a key casting choice that revitalises the story. Gone is the doddering angel Clarence to be replaced by the young Clara, a beaming presence throughout the whole of the performance. The curtains open with Clara hoping for her wings and we follow her as she follows the bittersweet life of George Bailey, beloved in his home of Bedford Falls but frustrated by his inability to desert the building and loans company and the people of the town.

The soprano Danielle De Niese plays Clara; Angel (second class) and she is utterly delightful, as adept at comic set pieces as she is at her soaring vocal performance. The Jimmy Stewart role of George Bailey is played by Frederick Ballentine; a lesser singer might have shrunk next to De Niese, but he remained undaunted and provided a nuanced and believable performance as the stoic and honourable George.

The melodies are simple and straightforward, this provides an immediate accessibility and is beneficial in achieving a gleeful and contagious sense of charm that runs throughout the piece. However, at times it feels like more complexity is warranted; the opera goes to some dark places with the townspeople suffering the wall street crash, the predatory land baron Mr Potter and George himself being on the edge of suicide. The opera follows the film to the letter, going so far as including most of the script’s greatest lines and whilst this will undoubtedly please the film’s many loyal fans, I feel that the opera would have profited by not sticking so strictly to the movie’s narrative. In being tied to the film it seems that the opera felt compelled to match its consistently cheerful tone, more sophistication in the score may have enabled the opera to explore the many bleaker moments more successfully.

The opera should be praised for its overall winsome glossiness, the enthusiasm and charisma of the leads is contagious, and the set pieces will delight any fans of classic cinema. Whilst the lack of substance and originality mean this isn’t one for the opera purists, at a time when the ENO is struggling for support, shows like this may be the answer, ‘It’s a wonderful life’ provides a dynamic take on a classic story whilst also demonstrating world class vocal performances.

Brooke Bolcho
Jake Heggie’s opera delivers guardian angels to the Coliseum


Heggie’s adaptation of the beloved Christmas classic tells the story of the disenfranchised George Bailey (Frederick Ballentine), stifled in the small all-American town of Bedford Falls where all his dreams of travelling the world are abandoned as he dedicates his life to saving his father’s business and legacy from the rich banker Mr Potter (Michael Mayes). The bittersweet story of sacrifice, love and hope – or lack thereof – are especially poignant as this was the first premiere after the devastating news of the defunding of ENO earlier this month. Despite the sadness surrounding the night, the production was truly a love letter to the audience and company’s supporters with a unique sing-a-long at the end of the show which brought everyone within the Coliseum together in the most heartwarming way.

The composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer’s collaboration on the opera is a modern twist on the 1946 film of the same name, exploring feelings of failure and loneliness often felt especially near the festive season. Whilst the opera is more feel-good than the film, the raw and intentional message of the importance of appreciating what one has before it is gone is still, if not more, pertinent through the depiction of the joy of life and love of family and friends. The score is as delectable and divine as ENO’s chorus of angels, guided by Mark Biggins, as they gave great pace and warmth to the snowy backdrop of Bedford Falls.

The tale follows Clara Angel (Danielle de Niese), a second class guardian angel whose task is to prevent George Bailey from taking his own life on Christmas Eve; Clara is plunged to Earth in a spectacular intergalactic projection and into a room with a canopy of stars, each door symbolising a certain time of George’s life. The staging of the opera through Aletta Collin’s direction, alongside the set design of Giles Cadle, brought Heaven quite literally to Earth as the stage was transformed into a stunningly celestial space where we see George’s journey to his breaking point unfold.

Danielle de Niese truly lives up to the magical role in her ENO debut with her dazzlingly divine and lilting soprano voice which shone as bright as the stars above her, maintaining complete control with her delicate yet exuberant onstage presence – the perfect angel. Ballentine, who played George Bailey, communicated his character’s inner struggle between duty and desire as his tenor voice pierced through his lines and into our hearts. His onstage wife Mary (Jennifer France) was an uplifting and stabling force for George with her achingly pure and graceful soprano vocals. The supporting cast were first class performers and wonderfully diverse and Nicole Paiement’s meticulous conducting of the ENO orchestra was unsurprisingly breathtaking, bringing the blissful Christmas spirit back to George’s life and our own.

Jacob Lewis
Charm and Charisma in Heaven and Bedford Falls

ENO is bringing Christmas spirit to the opera with Heggie and Scheer’s adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, and the zeitgeist is on the money! Jake Heggie’s score, which first premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 2016, is filled with innovation, experimentation and some fantastic orchestration. His take on opera feels like an innovation on Copland, using dance rhythms punctuated by some stunning orchestral colours from the ensemble. Notably featuring extended techniques (plucking, preparing and otherwise distorting) on the piano, giving an additional, percussive texture to his soundworld. Nicole Paiement used this score to great effect with the ENO Orchestra, Chorus and star-studded cast. She really made it come to life, tackling difficult balancing decisions given numerous competing vocal lines in many of Heggie’s scenes.

In terms of its adaptation from the film, Gene Scheer has been incredibly faithful. I appreciate that several of its big speeches have been left unchanged from the 1946 script, to those familiar with the film; hearing these set to music is very emotionally satisfying. However, given the vast scope of the source material, it is evident that each line has been chosen carefully and delivers important information to the audience, blink, and you might miss a vital plot beat.

The production itself is stunning, with effects, seamless set changes, and highly coordinated lighting effects for text and snow. The staging department particularly gets to show off all of its trap doors, moving platforms, rope swings and pull-out rooms. Opera isn’t always privy to innovations such as these; I was initially cynical. However, I was won over by this theatrical take on the genre, lending charm and charisma to both Heaven and Bedford Falls!

With much of the show’s production values being strong, the technical side could be improved, namely, vocal amplification. While I believe it is good for vocalists’ long-term health to be amplified so as not to need to compete with large orchestras, the singers were notably distorted by the speaker system. This didn’t destroy the performance, but it doesn’t set a good precedent, as vocal amplification was used with much more subtlety in past productions such as this season’s Tosca.

George (Frederick Ballentine) and Clara (Danielle de Niese, i.e., not-Clarence) are both fantastic and deliver beautiful vocals. However, the show is stolen by the absolutely stunning performance of Jennifer France as George’s wife, Mary, who brings a quality of sound and emotion that makes her shine. The acting is also strong at times, being at its strongest in the alternate timeline of the world without George Bailey, made all the more striking by the complete absence of music, where I sense that director Aletta Collins spent most of her effort preparing the cast.

If you’d like a heartfelt Christmas romp featuring dance numbers, some stunning visuals, and even a sing-along (I guarantee you’ll know the words), then It’s a Wonderful Life is the show for you.

Cian Kinsella
Is it?

For Christmas 2022, the English National Opera deliver a UK premiere of Nick Heggie’s 2016 opera-fication of Frank Capra’s 1946 film bearing the same title, with a libretto by Gene Scheer. I admire director Aletta Collins’s ability to bring the magic of Christmas day to the stage at London’s Coliseum: the same magic of having been cramped in front of the television for eight consecutive hours, my attention drifting back to the subpar films only when a moment of tension briefly commands it.

Collins and conductor Nicole Paiement do not have the easiest ride. Heggie’s It’s A Wonderful Life has all the pzazz of a Broadway musical without any of the catchiness or memorability, which it attempts to compensate for with extra tack; it has the vocal grandiosity of opera deprived of any complex characters, relationships, or themes bar those which have saturated every Christmas film since the dawn of Hollywood. It seems that many on opening night enjoyed it for its frequent foreshadowing, the satisfaction of recognising that something you’ve just seen anticipates what you know comes next (because you have seen the film). Unless you are under 21, in which case your ticket is free, I would advise you just to watch the film. (Even so, associated transport costs make visiting the ENO for such a trip a questionable choice.)

I am not all grinch, however. More than an show of monolithic mediocrity, it is marked by peaks and troughs. When Frederick Ballentine’s George Bailey and Jennifer France’s Mary Hatch – his future wife – reunite in their hometown, what I saw and heard was exemplary. The musical and physical chemistry between Ballentine and France is moving, and their singing overwhelmingly powerful. Paiement conducts this section with particular subtlety, and Heggie’s score finally finds a point where West End and opera appropriately intersect.

France is without doubt the player of the night. Her soprano presence fills the auditorium and quickly truncates any daydreams. Michael Mayes as Potter is a close second, brimming with pantomime villain. Danielle de Nise as Clara and Ballentine both show potential – they are expressive actors and singers ­– but only so much dimension can be given to paper thin characters.

During the second half, I thought to myself, ‘The end is dragging on a bit.’ Little did I know the end was still some way off, and such a performance only drags more during the feelgood resolutions of underdeveloped Christmas plots. I heard it remarked on opening night that It’s A Wonderful Life is about as much of a Christmas film as Die Hard. Perhaps Die Hard would have made a more exciting opera?

Alexander Bridges
Let’s make life wonderful: the ENO’s Christmas fairytale

What makes life wonderful? Money? Community? Both? Aletta Collins tries to answer this in her directorial debut with the ENO’s Christmas production It’s a Wonderful Life, based on the beloved 1946 film that tells of how small-town businessman George Bailey, on the brink of suicide after a supposedly wasted life, is shown by his guardian angel just how much of a difference his actions have made to others.

It is always difficult for a new production based on a older work to live up to expectations, but Jake Heggie’s 2016 score is a rare treat, a shifting mix of jazz-inspired classical fusion supported by Nicole Paiement’s strong, energetic conducting. The lively motif of the ‘mekee mekee’, the exotic dance that George hoped to learn on his travels, slides through the score, bursting out at moments when it seems there is still a chance for excitement and fulfilment – during his travel planning or his wedding, for instance. The vocal performances, although enjoyable, on the whole play second fiddle to this, with the notable exception of Michael Mayes’s Mr Potter, whose treacly, swooping baritone gives his character a very convincing amount of sleaze. Frederick Ballentine’s George and Jennifer France’s Mary are a strong duo, with George’s rounded tenor bouncing nicely off Mary’s dreamy soprano, but in George’s solo performance hints of strain occasionally interrupted his firm, resolute characterisation. Similarly, Danielle de Niese’s Clara had moments of flatness, a shame in an otherwise vivacious performance.

Giles Cade’s set design and Andreas Fuchs’s multimedia enhance Heggie’s score, which swirls in an enchanting snowflake-bauble multimedia whirlwind up to Heaven and then down to drab, grey Bedford Falls, balancing Christmas magic with suburban claustrophobia. The banknote green of Mr Potter’s bank is also a nice touch, marking him out as the big bad capitalist (who even received pantomime boos at curtain).

Gene Scheer’s libretto was slightly more uneven, moving from rather dull pieces of exposition to genuinely heart-wrenching moments. The performance reached a climax in George’s ‘un-life’ (after his wish to never have been born is granted) that is boldly staged in a starry void filled with a procession of his former friends and family and, crucially, is devoid of music. The recent news of the ENO’s funding cuts amplified the production’s pathos, eerily mapping onto the theme of the importance of a community straitened by money worries. However, after a touching treatment of suicide and a subtle invocation of music’s power (the characters only start singing again when George wishes for his life back), the opera comes to a slightly uneasy end: George Bailey is finally happy not just because he has recognised the importance of the community and his wife, but because ‘he’s the richest man in town’, standing over a basket of money. Is this really what fulfils us? In a story so concerned with human feeling and heavenly compassion, the cold hard cash at the end strikes a slightly false note.

Arrije Mohamed
Magnificently majestic; It’s a Wonderful Life is a must-see that will leave you on the edge of your seat.

The stage was glistening with shooting stars and sparkly skies as Daniele de Niese’s apprentice angel swings gracefully to and from in the opening of Jack Heggie and Gene Scheer’s operatic adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1946 film. Unlike regular opera, which depends on the singing for its impact, everything contributed here to make this a total magical experience. If you happened to lack the Christmas spirit before watching Aletta Collins’ production you certainly will not be leaving the ENO without wishing it was Christmas morning the following day and you were all snuggled up in festive pyjama eating  the cookies left out for Santa.

As soon as the curtains ascend we are greeted with glistening stars dancing in the moonlight, just one of Giles Cadle’s imaginative sets. The concept of doors that lead to George Bailey’s different walks of life is original and extremely successful. Lighting designer Andreas Fuchs didn’t fail to put the charm in charming. The beautifully lit sky full of luminescent stars was enchanting.  An honourable mention to conductor Nicole Paiement who brought Heggie’s Christmassy score to vibrant life with her breath-taking orchestra.

Clara the second class angel is first seen with a stunning blue flowy dress and hat which stops time when she takes it off, we later see her with a burgundy red plaid blazer. Ironically towards the end we see Mary Hatch Bailey dressed in an almost identical graceful blue dress and  red cardigan, as if she has been the Guardian Angel all along. George and Mary are seen both styled in matching jumpers at their high school dance, Mary’s has  “B” on and George’s has “F” on, a stroke of subtle genius as the town cannot be Bedford Falls without both of them; just as George is completed with Mary by his side.   For a second I thought soprano Danielle de Niese’s Clara had a microphone on because I could hear everything crystal clear, Frederick Ballantine who plays George and Donovan Singletary who portrays Harry Bailey were blessed with incredible voice projection, too.  Aletta Collins, also the choreographer, pulled out all the stops with the big production numbers, when it came to re-creating the dances of the 40s, and had me tapping my feet.

We also had a little interactive session at the end where all of us in the audience put on their best singing voices and we all sang together. This was the first time I’ve ever been included like this and it really rounded the evening off.

It’s a Wonderful Life is definitely a must see and I would urge everyone, especially families with children, to come and see what is by far the best opera I’ve seen all year.

Leah Renz
It’s a Wonderful Life Review

Any adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life has a lot to live up to. Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film ranks at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes review website, has a Google rating of 91%, and 19.5k people have rated the film a stellar five stars on Amazon Prime. The beloved story of one man’s realisation of the impact he has had on his community is bound to attract big audiences; the more difficult job is not disappointing them with inevitable changes to iconic scenes and characters.

Contemporary American composer Jake Heggie and frequent collaborator librettist Gene Scheer do not shy away from big changes (bumbling old Angel Clarence is now a young and beautiful Angel Clara, played by Danielle de Niese), but Scheer thankfully retains many of the film’s best lines. Angel Clara is accompanied by a celestial quartet, three of whom trained through the ENO’s Harewood Scheme. They sing beautifully over the family-centric action; stand-outs in the supporting cast are Ronald Samm as George Bailey’s endearing uncle, and the emotive Segomotso Shupinyaneng as Harry Bailey’s wife.

ENO’s commitment to diversifying opera is especially impactful in this adaptation; Capra’s 1946 film was released before the US Civil Rights movement and its main cast features only one person of colour, the Bailey family maid. Centring a black family at the heart of this opera version is a welcome update, even as the aesthetic of the 1940’s is maintained.

Lighting and stage design (Andreas Fuchs and Giles Cadle) conjure a rose-tinted suburbia; star-spangled skies and white picket fences slide in and out under lights glowing from blue to purple to dusky pink. Director Aletta Collins’ background in musical theatre is a strength as the stage design, music and lyrics combine for an unashamedly American schmaltz-fest; a soaring high note from Angel Clara is accompanied by her flying across the stage, perched on a moon.

It is cheerfully cheesy, but well-balanced against moments of moving characterisation. George Bailey’s anguish as his dreams of college and travel are thwarted is superbly portrayed by American tenor Frederick Ballentine in an uncharacteristically bitter aria. Michael Mayes as Harry F. Potter brings some capitalist callousness to the sweetness of the children and angels, against a backdrop which alludes – through font choice and colouring – to an American dollar bill.

Though it opens with Christmas bells Heggie’s score quickly turns from festive to jarring; the cast perform over disharmonic chords and occasional moments of near silence from the pit. Fortunately, the singing is fantastic and an acapella duet by Angel Clara and Mary Bailey (Jennifer France) is particularly beautiful. Nicole Paiement conducts with careful attention to dynamics.

This operatic version of It’s a Wonderful Life treads the tricky line of adaptation and makes it to the other end with an overlapping chorus of prayers, a moment which brought tears to my eyes. It’s a wonderful opera for families, Capra-fans, and opera first-timers.

Maisie Allen
It’s a Sickly-Sweet Life

“I’m counting prayers” are distressingly uttered by Clara Odbody in the opening scene of Jake Heggie’s adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, and it seems that this production could do with a few prayers of its own. Maybe it was the impassioned plea by ENO’s Artistic Director Annilese Miskimmon in the wake of the news of Arts Council cuts, or the quietly solemn poetry performance from Creative-in-Residence Kieron Rennie before the curtain rose, but there was an air of desperation amongst the performance that set the tone for this production’s run.

No expense was spared however, as glittering lights scattered across a black stage in an attempt to pay homage to the production’s cinematic roots; the visual effects added excitement into an otherwise dull first half. Crashing down to Earth in an attempt to save down-and-out small-town man George Bailey from taking his own life in the wake of a financial scandal, ‘opera’s coolest soprano’ Danielle de Niese’s Clara offered a different approach to the film’s original bumbling Clarence. Instead of comic relief, de Niese instead gave a hyperfeminine guardian angel that was simultaneously over-earnest and underdeveloped. Delivering sickly sweet lyrics which stumbled alongside the orchestra, her light soprano felt dimmed by this clunky libretto against a cacophony of an attempted cinematic score.

It’s a Wonderful Life was meant to kick off ENO’s festive season in style, but similarly to George Bailey’s oversized suit that drowned tenor Frederick Ballentine, the staging of this adaptation felt too big for the company to handle. It is a tough story to tell, navigating someone’s whole life, and against obvious metaphors of sliding doors and glaring traffic lights that shot down at every crossroads, it felt both overcomplicated and overly simplistic.

Aletta Collin’s direction saw Act I drag into a state of purgatory and Act II speed by so quickly that the emotional climax of George’s realisation that no he doesn’t actually wish he was never born felt like a blip, instead of being the premise of the whole production. Even confrontations with Michael Mayes’ villainous Potter lacked spite and gravitas, and the lime green/yellow combination of Potter’s office drained all seriousness out of these scenes.

If it wasn’t for the chorus of Angels First Class peering in from above, despite their garish metallic costumes that screamed more Space Age than festive fun, and Nicole Paiement’s impassioned conducting in the pit, then It’s a Wonderful Life would be drearier than its title suggests.

Zara Bhayani
It’s a Wonderful Life

A production that embodies the ENO’s entire ethos – opera for everyone. The first new performance since Arts Council England’s devastating announcement was preceded by a poignant speech from Annilese Miskimmon, ENO’s Artistic Director. She eloquently spoke out against this attack on opera, jeopardising the company and stripping 30% of funding nationwide. Equally as powerful was the poem recited by Kieron Rennie who, as part of the ENO’s creative residency, reflected on the little things that truly make life wonderful.

Audiences filed in, hearts tinged with sadness, to see Heggie and Scheer’s operatic adaptation of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. Two and a half hours later, that same sadness was replaced by an overwhelming sense of community and warmth.

Based on Frank Capra’s 1946 film of the same name, the opera was first commissioned and performed by the Houston Grand Opera in 2016. Gene Scheer’s libretto presents a contemporary interpretation; in line with the ENO’s continued endeavour for diversity, the male guardian angel is reimagined as a woman, ‘Clara’. Aletta Collins, on her directorial debut at the company, takes this a step further with an entirely Black casting of the Bailey family.

The audience experiences the plot from Danielle de Niese’s perspective, as Clara. Clever choreography involving the removal of her hat, freezing all on-stage action, prompted laughter. A vocally demanding role, de Niese’s playfulness makes her very watchable.

The entirely spoken penultimate scene, despite seeming clever in theory, was poorly executed. A world without George Bailey mirrored by a dialogue without music – largely unintelligible due to Frederick Ballentine’s over-the-top characterisation and a lack of surtitles to aid understanding. Although not the most prominent character, Michael Mayes (Mr Potter) was the perfect baritone antagonist. His sheer vocal strength reflected the supposed power of his character.

Similarly on her ENO debut, Nicole Paiement conducted with great clarity, navigating the modernity of the score with ease. Heggie’s incorporation of gospel, jazz, pop and classical influences were brought to life through Paiement’s control and lyricism. The ENO chorus was impressive as ever, creating a particularly powerful sound in the wedding scene of Act 2. The angel quartet, largely formed from ENO Harewood Artists, displayed the company’s nourishment of diverse young talent to fine effect.

The set, designed by Giles Cadle, leaves me somewhat conflicted. Although masterfully constructed, it was too stylised and therefore aesthetically unsatisfying. The rows of cut-out stars across the ceiling were reminiscent of children’s television. The lighting and visual effects, however, allowed for a spectacular cinematic experience. The beginning of Act 1 was a quasi-simulation, although the function of the randomly appearing traffic-lights towards the end was unclear.

Even though many ‘hard-core’ opera goers would dismiss this production as glorified musical-theatre, I think it speaks volumes about the ENO’s purpose in today’s society. The entire message of the opera was condensed into a final sing-along of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – everyone united in love and support for this beloved, endangered art-form.

Bobby McGuire
ENO’s It’s a Wonderful Life is Wonderful, but not Very Festive

Tonight is the UK premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life, the opera. Frank Capra’s 1946 film of the same name has the emotional drama to make a good opera, but, on stage, lacks the sparkle to make Christmas magic. Fortunately, Aletta Collins’ production creates a bright and whimsical Americana aesthetic that occasionally shines through this depressing Christmas classic. It’s a 4-star opera, but a 3-star Christmas show.

For fans of the film, the opera is a near play-by-play of the film. From Bedford Falls to Pottersville to the Bailey’s Christmas Eve party, the audience will find familiar faces and places on stage—with one key difference.

Clarence, the clumsy and loveable angel from the film, becomes Clara, an earnest and meddling soprano in the opera. Danielle de Niese’s Clara is a pleasant and light soprano who balances nicely with Frederick Ballentine’s wistful tenor. The angels and the Bailey family form an inviting ensemble with convincing acting. As a whole, it’s an enjoyable cast. Yet, call me a Grinch, no one stole the show.

If this is your first Jake Heggie opera, expect a night of musical theatre. Heggie’s score is a blend of vaudeville jazz, patriotic trumpets, and Christmas melodies. Punchy dance routines fill Bedford High’s graduation dance and barber-shop quartets sidestep hand-in-hand across the stage. It feels right at home in London’s West End. It’s the least operatic opera I’ve seen. It’s easy to digest and enjoyable, albeit a bit saccharine.

Conductor (and long-time Heggie collaborator) Nicole Paiement elevates Heggie’s energy. Paiement’s conducting creates peaks and valleys that make dreaming sequences feel hopeful and glittering while underscoring the anxious melancholy of Bailey’s financial woes.

Sounds fun, right? Unfortunately, the plot is a lump of coal for Christmas. The world of George Bailey is depressing. It’s a show about the false nostalgia of dreams that never come true. Potter, the domineering businessman, looms over the show (with a velvety and enticing baritone, I might add).

In December 2022, the forthright presentation of a rapidly devaluing currency and a housing crisis leave me worrying about the cost of living instead of celebrating the festive season. With ENO’s recent funding cuts, we can only hope this town comes together to save the day as they did with George Bailey.

It’s a Wonderful Life is more Blue Christmas than White Christmas. The show has some moments that glitter—the dance-a-long Mekke Mekke and the sparkling Auld Lang Syne sing-a-long finale–but as the bright snow turns to grey slush in the street and I return to work after writing this review, I can’t help but think that Christmas is just another bank holiday after all.

Susannah Moody
It’s a wonderful Life


Review to come.