The first opening night since the English National Opera found its government funding would be cut to zero couldn't have had a more iironically titled production: for the ENO, this is certainly now not a wonderful life. It was always going to be an emotional evening and the ENO’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon kicked off proceedings, imploring us to sign the #LoveENO petition started by Bryn Terfel and introducing their resident poet and spoken word artist Kieron Rennie. Miskimmon promised us that those who joined at the singalong could consider this their ENO debut. She recognised the contributions of the benefactors invited to this showing. It had the feeling of a sudden raging against the light, a plea direct to the hearts and minds of those who had come out on a cold and dark Friday night. We will likely see more of these before next April.

How was the actual opera, you ask? With music by Jake Heggie and a libretto from Gene Scheer, It’s A Wonderful Life is a 2016 two-act work based on the iconic Frank Capra-directed yuletide favourite from 1946. From the film to the stage, a few changes have been made. Clarence, the angel looking to get his wings is now called Clara and played by Australian soprano Danielle de Niese making her ENO debut while James Stewart’s George Bailey is now played by tenor Frederick Ballentine.

Heggie’s plot closely follows that of the Capra film. In 1920s America, George grows up in Bedford Hills with his younger brother Harry, uncle Billy and a father who manages a local saving and loans company. Local financial magnate Henry F Potter has his eyes on the business so, when his father dies, George is forced to give up his dreams of international travel and college in order to take over the family business. Harry goes on to college in George’s place, marries and goes to fight in Europe. After Billy mislays a major deposit, the company is on the verge of collapse and George contemplates suicide. Angel second class Clara is sent down to Earth to change George’s mind and, in so doing, gain her wings.

In a move that would have been taboo in the 1940s, the Bailey family and George’s guardian angel are played here by Black singers (his wife is played by the white British soprano Jennifer White). This adds a new slant on the story’s “rich vs poor” narrative without taking away from the central thrust of the drama.

Ballentine will return in the new year in the ENO’s Das Rheingold as Loge, the God of Fire and his role here as George Bailey is perhaps some kind of warmup (pun intended). Whether facing off against Potter or the hot wrath of his friends and neighbours, the American is in almost every scene and provides sterling support when not leading the action himself.

Director Aletta Collins brilliantly gives each of the main actors plenty of room to express themselves. Michael Mayes digs into Potter’s haughty and evil nature so deeply that, come the curtain call, he receives loud panto-style boos from across the auditorium. Ballentine and White’s chemistry is superb both in the flashback scenes and later.

If even this isn’t exactly breaking new ground, the addition of Miskimmon and Rennie to proceedings and choosing to go with a diverse cast provide firm evidence that the ENO is adhering to its core mission of keeping world-class opera accessible and reflective of modern society. More of this kind of thing and less of the Wagner (especially after last year’s much-derided The Valkyrie) may just be its saving grace.

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