Opera North Set High Standards with its Carousel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Rodgers & Hammerstein, Carousel: Soloists, Orchestra, Chorus and Dancers of Opera North, The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays, 23-26.5.2012 (RJF)

It does not seem that long ago that Opera North, renowned for the diversity of its imaginative programming, seemed to be in the doldrums. This state of affairs was a consequence of the Arts Council cut in its grant by a savage fifteen percent. It meant the cancellation of a lot of well-laid plans for this 2012 spring/summer season and tour, with General Director Richard Mantle taking the hard decision to schedule nothing until he  knew it could be funded and done well. Out of what could have been a pile of ashes has come this wonderful production and staging superbly performed by a combination of opera singers and musical show performers, – dancers, singers and youngsters barely out of nappies! (I exaggerate slightly in the latter respect.) Not only did the capacity audience see and hear a first class production and performance at the Lowry, Opera North has also put together, as I describe at the end, an exciting series of venues and dates including a residency at London’s Barbican that will overlap the Olympic shenanigans that have so far cost many millions. I believe that as the prime Olympic competitions have long ago sold out, this production should do the same both in London during the Games and also at the various other venues. All will help to recoup some of the cost, as will the production’s undoubted revivability in future years.

Opera North has built up a tradition of crossing the border from opera into musical theatre, presenting works by Kurt Weill in his American period (see review 1) and Gershwin (see review) for example. Such ventures across the divide have all been cast from strength and produced with imagination in appropriate sets and costumes and in no way skimped. All of these qualities are evident in this production by Jo Davies whose Ruddigore for Opera North justifiably drew national plaudits (see review) in its first run and also the reprise (see review). Add inventive, imaginative, realistic and flexible sets by Anthony Ward and the scène is set for this story, played in mid western American period costume, to unfold. The story of two sassy girls falling for the plausibility of two older men of dubious character, with one, Julie, getting pregnant and being left to bring up a child without a father, has many echoes in our own society.

To complement the sets and costumes it is essential to have singing actors and actresses who can bring the characters alive. This is particularly so in the case of Billy Bigelow, who somehow must elicit some sympathy for his intemperate violence via his ultimate recognition of his weaknesses when he return from heaven or wherever to watch his daughter’s graduation and express understanding of Julie’s challenges in bringing up the girl alone. Eric Greene does so by outstandingly convincing acting after overcoming one curdled note early in the first act. His baritone has sufficient flexibility and diction to complement his acting and leave behind a sympathy and appreciation in the audience for his realisation at the end. Both Julie and Carrie as the scatty girls played their parts well with the former, bespectacled, and despite being tempted by the local part time hoodlum Jigger, having the sense to marry a steady guy in Mr Snow, played by Joseph Shovelton, whose slightly edgy tenor easily encompassed the tessitura. Of the two girls Claire Boulter was the more distinguished vocally, easily encompassing character in her singing and acting. If Gillene Herbert as Julie did not reach those standards, she played her role with freshness and conviction and didn’t let the side down. Of the other women Candida Benson, appearing as something of a butch dominatrix in her boots and hairstyle, was equally convincing and one could equally see in her portrayal why Billy was wary of what she offered in terms of a job and everything else. Outstanding as a singer, and sympathetic as a character, Elena Ferrari was auntie making an outstanding contribution in ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

The dancing was good with Alex Newton, the daughter Louise that Billy never knew, particularly notable. The difficult to stage heaven sequence was achieved with distinction. The final pieces of the jigsaw were realised in the pit under James Holmes and by the chorus – not forgetting the children of various ages.

Robert J Farr

Carousel  will tour to Sheffield, Edinburgh and Belfast, and the Barbican, London. Opera North will be back at the Lowry for a concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walkure on July 14th. The autumn season of performances of new productions of Faust, The Makropolis Case and Don Giovanni will commence on Tuesday November 6th.