A Christmas Carol for All of Us

We review the highly anticipated UK premiere of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, by English National Opera ta the London Coliseum, and ask; if it’s all about festivity – then why do I feel so confused?

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is an opera by Jake Huggies in 2016, an adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra classic Christmas film.

I always used to think that if nobody dies, then it ain’t an opera. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life”, is indeed all about death and suicide – but also about  happiness and redemption. It is about the fall of a man, or the generosity of mankind. Take it how you will.

The reason that you and  I go to ENO, is because we know, we just know, that the boundaries will be pushed, the performance edgy, we will feel stimulated, saddened, surprised, excited – but not necessarily entertained. ENO opera explores avenues that  we are not expecting.

And so it is with this production. Right from the get-go, the audience audible gasp as the orchestra swirls into sound with it’s Hollywood movie style, and astonishing snow and starlight effects, and the sudden focus on Danielle de Niese as Clara high up in the dark of the staging – is mesmerising. Danielle is a tour de force, her opening monologue  is a full 15 minutes duration, astonishing vocal line that has no melodic element – it just soars along – and carries the opening of Act 1. I loved her complaint of being “Angel second class” – waiting for her wings.

This ENO production brings the best of a team of  specialists – conductor Nicole Paiement, a regular Heggie collaborator, making her ENO Debut – and Aletta Collins also making her ENO Debut as Director, – and I could go on –  – supported by three of the rising stars of  Harewood ENO members.

But the standout performance has to be Jennifer France as Mary, her absolutely perfect clarity of vocal line and engaging dramatic art, is the glue that holds the storyline together. Usually it is the ENO Orchestra that covers this function, but for once, the balance has shifted to just the key vocalists. You follow the vocalists – and the music takes care of itself.

The production says that it is suitable for children. Yes, it is timed around Christmas, there are great ensemble and happy moments – but I think the message is universal and quite dark.  You do not leave the theatre singing a happy tune.

But what  do I know?  We had a train strike on this opening evening – and I had to leave before the end, otherwise I miss my last train. Even then, what should have been a twenty minute little hop – took more than one hour. Worse, if anything subdued the atmosphere, it was the opening pre – announcement by Annilese Miskemmon, Artistic Director, of the savage cuts in opera funding across the board, by  Arts Council England, and the complete removal of funding for ENO itself. I suppose the argument in 21st century England is that, well, why fund the arts if you cannot travel to see them anyway?

There was a palpable anger and shock, across the audience, and the queue for #LoveENO memorabilia stretched across the meeting and coffee areas of the theatre itself. 

At a time when the health and society benefits of music inclusion are increasingly recognised for their therapeutic and educational value, and ENO’s position as a Uk leader of that demarche – this situation is at best shortsighted, and worst case,  a damaging catastrophe for so many children that are just coming to realise music’s importance in their own lives.

But there is a bright side; we do now have a clear choice this Christmas; sure we can go see the Nutcracker as usual. Or we can go just a little deeper, and follow the narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life. After all, George Bailey, our anti-hero – does not  die; and Clara does get her wings, first class.