Stephen Sondheim once deftly answered a question about what makes a show an opera or a musical by saying, “I’ve always defined opera as anything done in an opera house in front of an opera audience.” The venue defines partly the way it is presented, and partly the way it is received: in an opera house, the emphasis is on the musical qualities, both orchestral and vocal, with the audience listening for the sound; in a theatre, it’s more about the drama that the audience wants to be engaged with.
A scene from Carousel at the Grand Theatre, Leeds Photo: Alastair Muir
It’s a difference of approach that underlines and explains both the great virtues of Opera North’s new production of Carousel, but also its main failing: it is ravishingly rendered in the music department, with a full-bodied, old-fashioned sound coming from both the big orchestra pit (under the baton of James Holmes) and a massive onstage ensemble, but some of the staging is sluggish and lacking in grit. On the one hand, it is a gorgeous wallow in a warm bath of beautiful, nostalgic melodies and memories; but on the other, the cold shower of its piercing portrait of an imperfect love and the botched choices that a man makes in pursuit of it is emotionally lacking.
The result is that, where Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre production nearly 20 years ago pierced the heart, this Carousel only scratches just below the surface of its dramatic potential. Yet you won’t hear this most haunting of Rodgers and Hammerstein scores better sung, especially by the female triumvirate of Gillene Herbert’s Julie Jordan, Claire Boulter’s Carrie Pipperidge and Elena Ferrari’s Nettie Fowler, who bring a ravishing vocal radiance to every song.
But the dramatic tension and temperature drops between songs, not helped by Eric Greene’s physically imposing but nevertheless underpowered Billy Bigelow. There’s far stronger acting support from Michael Rouse’s edgy, threatening Jigger, and Joseph Shovelton’s eager, endearing Enoch Snow.
Neatly enclosed in a half-screen of wood panels on three sides that has been handsomely designed by Anthony Ward, the show’s visual world is well complemented by its physical expression in the vibrant choreography of Kay Shepherd’s balletic setpieces.