Whoosh! A digital starburst, a sweep of orchestral sound and the stage of the Coliseum is alive with dancing, whirling snowflakes. Floating in the heavens is the soprano Danielle de Niese; below her in the darkness, the truss bridge that we all know – because we’ve all seen It’s a Wonderful Life – is where the turning point of the story will occur, a couple of hours from now. That being the case, the only question is how composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer and director Aletta Collins are going to close the circle and get us there. It’s evident from the off that they’re not going to stint either on spectacle or on sentiment.
And quite right too: this is a Christmas opera, and there aren’t too many of those about. English National Opera doubtless wishes that there was a bankable operatic equivalent to The Nutcracker, guaranteed to fill that vast auditorium every December. It’s entirely logical to try to create one, and Heggie’s 2016 movie adaptation is a good fit for the UK’s most pop-savvy opera company. This is not the time for experiments (though it’s barely three years since ENO did Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus). Posterity will sort the wheat from the chaff; meanwhile a new and successful English-language opera by a composer with Heggie’s reputation for accessibility is exactly the sort of thing that a subsidised national company ought to be putting in front of us. The audience, for what it’s worth, looked big, youthful and diverse: all those things that (we now know) the Arts Council of England only pretends to give a stuff about.
Anyhow, Collins has crafted a good-looking show. That opening fantasy sequence is dazzling beyond anything available to Frank Capra back in 1946, and throughout the long flashback of the plot, Giles Cadle’s designs evoke a playful, pastel-coloured American dream where life and fate play out beneath a star-spangled heaven and the pantomime-baddie capitalist Potter conducts his business behind a gigantic dollar bill.