Danielle de Niese as Clara (top) with Frederick Ballentine as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life by Jake Heggie & Gene Scheer at English National Opera. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
Jake Heggie’s take on the heartwarming Christmas classic has a glittering, melodic score with a gift of a role for soprano Danielle de Niese as goofy guardian angel Clara
George Bailey dreams of brushing the small-town dust of Bedford Falls off his feet and seeing the Parthenon and the Colosseum. Now Jake Heggie’s opera of It’s a Wonderful Life, premiered in Houston in 2016, has made it across the pond to the Coliseum, where its story of Christmas hope amid thwarted dreams seems pertinent as English National Opera fights for survival.
Heggie has been a mainstay of new opera in the US for the past two decades. Some will wish for more teeth in his music – after all, there’s plenty of bitterness in the beloved 1946 film on which the opera is based. Indeed his glittery, melodic score is at its best when its default sweetness gets an unsettling spanner in the harmonic works: when the wedding music admits the low rumble that means the bank run has started, for example. Aletta Collins’s staging for ENO tells the story clearly under a canopy of stars; video effects make the angels’ galactic home morph into an earthly blizzard and back again.