In February’s edition of Opera, the editor, John Allison, mounted an attack on Opera North’s “unsatisfactory contingency plan for this Spring and Summer”. Cutbacks in arts funding caused the postponement of scheduled operas and their replacement with a long run of Carousel at Leeds, Salford and the Barbican and a short tour of the company’s ever-gleeful production of Ruddigore. Apart from his wilful misrepresentation of Carousel as a “mawkish and sentimental piece about a wife-beater”, Mr. Allison has got it all wrong. Admittedly a new production of The Makropoulos Case would be more challenging than Carousel, but thanks to a bankable musical we can encounter the Janacek, with two other new productions, in the Autumn.
Even Mr. Allison admits that Opera North “has enjoyed success in the past with musicals” and my defence depends on Carousel being worth staging and being staged well. Both are certainly true. Of course it’s a sentimental piece, sometimes trite, occasionally surprisingly original, and, whilst I’m glad that Opera North’s ongoing cycle is Wagner, not Rodgers and Hammerstein, it is a solidly crafted piece of theatre with a remarkably high proportion of memorable songs. Oscar Hammerstein’s simplicity is the result of an intelligent sensibility and his lyrics, with hardly a word above two syllables, encourage Richard Rodgers’ broadly anthemic melodies, from “If I Loved You” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, shrewdly manipulated in context to leave not an eye undabbed.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second hit is more complex than the mould-breaking Oklahoma!, but the characters remain essentially simple, apart from the problematic Billy Bigelow. Carrie Pipperidge and Julie Jordan, friends and mill-workers in a New England seafaring town, pursue opposite courses in marriage. Carrie chooses the conventionally aspirational Enoch Snow, Julie falls for the unreliable fairground barker Billy Bigelow who mistreats her, falls into crime and comes to a violent end. At this point naturalism is abandoned as Billy is given a second chance to make something of his life.
Jo Davies’ production is very much an ensemble affair, low on star turns, with capable and complementary performances all down the line. Gillene Herbert (Julie) and Claire Boulter (Carrie) are splendidly skittish to begin with and mature nicely via several familiar and well sung numbers. Elena Ferrari gives a somewhat generic interpretation of Nettie Fowler, but enjoys getting first go at “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Joseph Shovelton’s naively ambitious Mr. Snow and Michael Rouse’s humorously disreputable Jigger Craigin are both excellent and Eric Greene, arriving late as Billy owing to the indisposition of Keith Phares, is outstanding, his rich baritone and idiomatic phrasing combined with an appropriate perplexity about himself.
Anthony Ward’s set is attractive and ingenious, looks all the better for Bruno Poet’s lighting, and, inevitably, makes much use of the revolve; Kay Shepherd’s choreography has a decided flavour of the original Agnes de Mille; Kim Brandstrup, entrusted with the Act 2 ballet, avoids pretension. Under James Holmes the orchestra relishes Don Walker’s original orchestration (conventional opera orchestra – no saxophones or guitars) which was reconstructed as recently as 2000.