English National Opera’s ongoing flirtation with popular musicals began with a version of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in 2015. This was followed last year by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard.
Now, for its third season with commercial partners the GradeLinnit Company, it rolls out the operatic credentials again, fielding two classical-crossover artists in former ENO principal Alfie Boe and mezzo-soprano recording star Katherine Jenkins to give full-throated voice to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s soaring arias.
Carousel is a story of regret, longing and a desperately unhappy, doomed relationship. The ENO production is billed as a semi-staged version, but it might be more accurate to describe Lonny Price’s production as semi-acted.
Boe and Jenkins seem at cross-purposes, and not just in the mismatched aspirations of the characters they are playing. Jenkins’ sweetly earnest Julie Jordan feels stilted and awkward in her scenes, only relaxing when she can place her shimmering voice to the gorgeous service of songs like What’s the Use of Wond’rin.
Boe’s Billy Bigelow – burdened by a hairpiece that seems to be doing more acting than him – is wooden except for when he’s able to release that magnificent tenor, most notably in the celebrated Soliloquy in which he ponders the prospect of imminent parenthood.
On the one hand, this is a Broadway musical as you sadly rarely get to hear them anymore – with a 40-piece orchestra, under the baton of David Charles Abell, on full display in a specially elevated pit, and vocal support from 24 members of the ENO Chorus joining 12 principals and an ensemble of 25. That’s over 100 visible participants, making it without question the biggest show in town. On the other hand, this is also the kind of old-fashioned revival you luckily don’t see much of anymore.
Even without the reverberating memory of Nick Hytner’s 1992 National Theatre reinvention of the show, this is merely decorative, not deep.
Locations are prettily conjured by projected static slides of painted landscapes against a screen sail at the back of the stage. Josh Rhodes provides some athletic, atmospheric choreography. But the performances are mostly caricatures, with the exception of the delightful Alex Young and Gavin Spokes lending some individuality and humour and providing a necessary respite from the prevailing earnestness.
By all means go to bask in the beautiful, ravishingly performed score again, but Carousel has seldom felt less affecting.