A whip-round produces a basket overflowing with banknotes towards the close of English National Opera’s new production of It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s just one of the many ironies about the timing of this piece, staged as the company faces the devastating loss of its £12.8m Arts Council funding. “No matter how your story ends, no one is a failure who has friends,” sing the chorus at the curtain, and, goodness knows, ENO needs friends right now, because life is very far from wonderful.
Whatever your feelings about this sugary confection, based entirely on Frank Capra’s 1946 film, no one could describe ENO’s production (first seen in Houston in 2016) as a failure. Is it an opera? Is it a musical? Does that really matter when it is sung with such verve and staged with such panache? Probably not, and if it brings in a new audience that’s surely a good thing.
However, in a recent interview, its composer, Jake Heggie, said he writes “musicals for opera singers and opera houses”. Well, up to a point. Musicals usually feature at least a couple of big numbers you can whistle on your way home. You won’t find any in this show. Instead, Heggie is a master of pastiche: we hear the influence of Bernstein, Korngold, vaudeville and barbershop, even Schoenberg. The orchestration is often pure Hollywood, lush and creamy as a chocolate eclair, but the vocal writing can be angular, sometimes atonal, particularly for Clara, the guardian angel.
Yes, Clara. Clarence, the angel who appears near the end of the film, is replaced here with a soprano who takes centre stage from the beginning, observing the life of poor thwarted George Bailey at first hand, a change to the story that also sees welcome diverse casting (a real ENO strength) reframing the focus of the whole piece. Danielle de Niese as Clara sings, appropriately, like an angel, bringing vital energy to the role, and exciting tenor Frederick Ballentine makes a charming George, although he has a tough job playing opposite star soprano Jennifer France, who dazzles as his wife, Mary. Tenor Ronald Samm does a lovely job as bumbling Uncle Billy.
Giles Cadle’s attractive set is peppered with stars, moons and snowflakes that sparkle under Andreas Fuchs’s lighting design. Costume designer Gabrielle Dalton has a ball dressing the big company in outfits that track fashion from the 1920s to the late 1940s, while director and choreographer Aletta Collins and conductor Nicole Paiement keep the whole thing moving at a slick pace (unlike the film). Librettist Gene Scheer stays remarkably close to the original dialogue, which articulates radical ideas on the cost of living, mortgages, housing, rents and profiteering – potent topics today. There’s even a proto Trump in the panto villain of the piece, the unscrupulous financier Henry F Potter, splendidly sung by baritone Michael Mayes.
When suicidal George wails that he wishes he had never been born, the music stops. Clara shows him just what a harsh, unharmonious world it would be if he hadn’t lived, with the music returning only when he finds he way back to real life. If nothing else, this warm-hearted, deeply sentimental production shows us just how much poorer our world would be if ENO’s music were to stop and we were left without it.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra, under its principal conductor Edward Gardner, is currently exploring ideas of exile and belonging in a highly pertinent season entitled A place to call home. One of the 20th century’s most powerful protests against displacement and injustice is Michael Tippett’s too-rarely performed oratorio A Child of Our Time (1944), which focuses on Kristallnacht, the night Nazi hatred of the Jewish people spilled over into stark, cruel reality. It draws on African American spirituals, the music of another oppressed people, to convey a universal message of grief, protest and boundless compassion.
The London Philharmonic Choir, with the London Adventist Chorale, sang Tippett’s deeply moving score with precision and authority, particularly in his wondrous reworking of Steal Away, Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Go Down, Moses and Deep River. Special mention here for the sopranos, who despatched the most hazardous vocal line, “We are lost, we are as seed before the wind”, with consummate ease. Tippett fashions the piece in the 18th-century manner, with soloists laying out the narrative and commenting on the action. Here, Nadine Benjamin excelled, her bright, clean soprano soaring over the spirituals like a blazing comet. Mezzo Sarah Connolly and baritone Roderick Williams, turning to watch in admiration, were committed, eloquent companions, although tenor Kenneth Tarver seemed more detached.
Nature and music have been meeting in harmony at Prussia Cove on the rugged Cornwall coast for 50 years. Cue for a celebration of the International Musicians Seminar, founded there in 1972 to maintain the highest standards of European music-making, with a list of maestri and alumni that reads like a Who’s Who of the classical world. Artistic director Steven Isserlis assembled a galaxy of exceptional talent at London’s Wigmore Hall last weekend to mark the milestone. Violinist Sini Simonen shone in the closing concert, coaxing her colleagues through an ecstatic reading of Dvořák’s String Quintet in G; Thomas Adès drove Bartók’s strident, frenetic Contrasts from the keyboard, with clarinettist Matthew Hunt and violinist Jonian Ilias Kadesha racing along beside him. But perhaps the most memorable moment came in the opening allegro of Brahms’s Clarinet Trio in A minor, where Hunt, pianist Dénes Várjon and cellist Alice Neary raced up and down pianissimo scales like soft-pawed kittens playing in the snow.
Star ratings (out of five)
It’s a Wonderful Life ★★★★
A Child of our Time ★★★★
ISM Prussia Cove ★★★★★
It’s a Wonderful Life is at the Coliseum, London, until 10 December