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It's A Wonderful Life at the London Coliseum – review

The seminal film heads to the stage

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Gweneth Ann Rand, Frederick Ballentine, Danielle de Niese
© Lloyd Winters

Theatres up and down the land are currently all beginning their Christmas runs of panto. Ballet companies are breaking open their Nutcrackers, and Scrooge's aplenty are humbugging their way across stages everywhere. So why has it taken so long for the opera world to get in on the Christmas action?

It's a Wonderful Life is a classic of the Christmas movie genre. Its bleak themes and difficult subject matter make it a peculiar favourite, but its sprinkling of Christmas magic and its ideas of redemption, charity and humanity are what turn this crisis laden story into an uplifting tale of hope. It famously opens with a world-withered George Bailey, staring into the murky depths of a river about to commit suicide. His world has come crashing down around him as a monetary disaster – not of his making - has struck.

It's a fate that is ironically besetting the mighty English National Opera as this glorious and much loved company also stares into a murky abyss. By bizarrely removing all of their funding, Arts Council England has provided the financial calamity that has led to ENO's own crisis, and – much like George Bailey – it will need its very own guardian angel to save it from a bleak future.

Thankfully, the ever-resourceful ENO is fighting back hard and a campaign to save the company has already begun. Canny programming will also help, and productions like this new offering of Jake Heggie (music) and Gene Scheer's (libretto) wonderfully accessible adaptation of this seminal film should do wonders at the box office – as long as the wider theatre-going public are invited along for the ride and as long as the ticket pricing is made affordable for all (and not just those that are lucky enough to be under 21). It's time for opera to enter the mainstream.

Entering into a world of greater commercial viability does not automatically equate to dumbing down and shouldn't mean a drop in standards. Aletta Collins directs – and choreographs – this feisty new production with real warmth and elegance, expertly driving the narrative at pace and with a firm hand on the saccharine levels.

The film's guardian angel, Clarence, has been renamed Clara. The gender swap means that we are treated to the radiant Danielle de Niese as a beaming Angel Second Class that is working to save George in order to be able to earn her wings. Clara reveals to George a world into which he was never born, thus showing him how many lives he has touched and made better. Niese exudes a youthful energy and an inquisitive naivety that remains engaging from her heavenly entrance to her high-flying finale, and she sings like an angel too.

American tenor Frederick Ballentine is full of the charm and self-reflection needed as George, whilst his wife Mary is given plenty of gusto by British soprano Jennifer France. Villainy is offered in a nicely measured Michael Mayas as the unbenevolent Mr Potter – he even induces boos from the audience during his curtain call. There is also a nicely dishevelled performance from Ronald Samm as Uncle Billy.

Heggie's score is at turns filmic and dramatic, but there is plenty of festive sparkle and colour to it. Some recurring themes worm into the brain, while the discordant hauntings of "Hark the Herald Angels" brilliantly capture the unravelling of George's senses. Scheer's libretto never ventures far from the film, with plenty of lines lifted directly from the original 1946 script – a tribute to its quality.

Giles Cadle sets the entire show within the star covered attic of George's mind. Some nifty projection work adds to the magic moments as well - I wanted to leave the Coliseum to flurries of snowflakes falling from the sky – alas it was clearly my guardian angel's night off!

As ENO fights for its future it would do well to remember the final lines of this perfect, operatic festive treat – "No matter how your story ends, no one is a failure who has friends" – and English National Opera has plenty of those.

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