One of the many ironies of English National Opera’s plight, as Arts Council England bows to political whims and excises its public subsidy, is that it has had the rug pulled from under it just as one of its most adventurous seasons for years gets into its stride. Only three of its ten productions between September and next April, when its funding is due to cease, can be regarded as repertoire works. And while one can have reservations about its recourse to too many American operas in preference to home-grown ones (Tippett’s King Priam being the most tantalising might-have-been), its mission of broadening repertoire, audiences and its performer base has never been more in evidence. To anyone with a heart or brain, ENO doesn’t need to prove itself any further to justify its survival, but a surefire hit for the pre-Christmas season would certainly do it no harm. Whether it has found that in Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life is more open to debate.

Jennifer France (Mary Hatch Bailey) and Frederick Ballentine (George Bailey)
© Lloyd Winters

The opera was premiered in Houston in 2016, revised for a second production in San Francisco two years later and now makes its UK debut. Frank Capra’s classic film of 1946 would seem ripe for operatic treatment (as might its own reception history, reading the background in the programme), with its mixture of fantasy and often harsh realism. Heggie’s regular collaborator Gene Scheer has crafted an effective libretto, including some of the key dialogue from the film, so there’s a generous sense of familiarity, and the structure is well constructed to get through the story without longueurs.

Although hardly devoid of sentimentality at certain moments, the text and overall story at least have a certain grittiness that is lacking from Heggie’s music. This is where the real issue lies, for me at least: the score is all far too saccharine, spends an excessive amount of time ambling between two overworked main themes – an angelic twinkle and a jitterbug – and is just too banal, too easy on the ear, so it goes in one and out the other. I know I am old-fashioned in expecting at least a hint of Modernism in my contemporary music, but this is conservative in the extreme, even for a supposedly family show.

Danielle de Niese (Clara)
© Lloyd Winters

It also – and this is not the fault of the fine production and performance – doesn’t seem to be able to decide if it is an opera or a musical. It is wholly through-composed enough for the former, and doesn’t have the wealth of set-piece numbers usually required of the latter, but for opera the music itself often seems to fall on the wrong side of the fence. Which all made me wonder what Leonard Bernstein – no stranger to musical schmaltz, but also a composer with more bite to his maw – might have done with the subject. Perversely, perhaps, the most dramatically effective part of the opera is when the music stops completely to make way for the entirely spoken scene where, in telling visual monochrome, Clara the angel (second class) shows George Bailey a world in which he was never born. After this, the slushy denouement seems all too pat – not a million miles away from Bernstein’s "Make Our Garden Grow" at the end of Candide in intent but without the sense in the music of hard-won harmoniousness. And Heggie's opera, like the film, leaves the despicable Henry Potter unpunished.

Danielle de Niese (Clara) and the children's ensemble
© Lloyd Winters

Undoubtedly others will respond to Heggie’s emotional trajectory more willingly than I, but one must applaud the sleekness and theatricality with which the whole company has put his opera on stage. Director Aletta Collins’s background in choreography had me worried for a moment that we might be in for a song-and-dance travesty, but in the event she provides a naturalistic marshalling of the characters across the stage, with Giles Cadle’s flexible set enabling swift changes of environment within the confines of a large barn-like structure. The colour-changing traffic lights that descend at key moments are signal overkill, but with a judicious use of projection (the swirling snow is effective) and lighting (Andreas Fuchs), the moods are well shaped.

Donovan Singletary (Harry)
© Lloyd Winters

Danielle de Niese, making her ENO debut as Clara, has the unenviable challenge of being in view throughout, whether on stage or above it, since she sings her framing passages suspended above the scene on a swing and on wires. And for once it’s no hyperbole to say she sang angelically. Frederick Ballentine is almost as ubiquitous as a sympathetic and multi-faceted George, with Jennifer France strongly characterised and communicative as his wife, Mary. Ronald Samm’s Uncle Billy, Donovan Singletary’s Harry, Segomotso Shupinyaneng’s Helen and Gweneth-Ann Rand’s Mother complete the adult Bailey family, all excellently sung, alongside convincing performances from the child actors as their younger versions and offspring. Conductor Nicole Paiement, another regular Heggie collaborator, keeps the whole show on the move.