“Carousel”, Opera North,
Barbican, 23rd August, 2013
“Carousel” is one of my favourite musicals, ranking alongside “Oklahoma”, with superb songs and having more dramatic weight than many, although raising concerns that are discussed later. Opera North's production is full of vitality and visual interest to set alongside the wonders of the score. Apart from the most well known numbers such as “You'll Never Walk Alone” and “June is Busting Out All Over”, songs such as “Mister Snow” and “When the Children Are Asleep” have an easy, tuneful grace that I find delightful.
I particularly enjoyed the songs performed by the male members of the cast: Eric Greene as Billy, the rough-neck central character, Michael Rouse as Jigger, the thief and killer who leads Billy to disaster, and Joseph Shovelton as Enoch, the upstanding contrast to the ill-fated pair; all three command the stage and their voices suit the songs admirably. Claire Butler as Carrie makes the most of her role's humour and sings in a bright, winning style. Gillene Herbert as Julie achieves a strong emotional connection with the audience, and as Nettie, Elena Ferrari commands the stage; however with both singers I found their operatic vibrato too great for the songs.
The dance and movement direction provide heaps of energy to the show. The ensemble dance by Kay Shepherd, and the “ballet” and “June is busting ...” sections by Kim Brandstrup fit seamlessly together. In the extended duet, Alex Newton as Julie's daughter and Nicholas Cass-Beggs make the most of Brandstrup's choreography – with its lifts and swings effectively conveying the dreams of the 15-year old girl. Anthony Ward provides arresting, stylised sets accommodating the different scenes.
The production opens with the wonderful “Carousel Waltz”, but with a newly added, potted history of the childhood of Billy Bigelow, the fairground barker at the heart of the narrative. This attempts to provide some background for his character, but it passes too quickly to make an impact. Presumably it has been included to counter a problematic aspect of “Carousel” - the attitudes to women on display. Two sections of the show highlight this aspect. The words of the lovely song “What's the Use of Wondering” include:
Oh, what's the use of wond'ring
If he's good or if he's bad?
He's your feller and you love him,
That's all there is to that.
Something made him the way that he is,
Whether he's false or true,
And something gave him the things that are his,
One of those things is you
So, Julie belongs to Billy and it doesn't matter how he behaves in general and to her. Secondly there are the two instances where Billy hits his wife and later his daughter; in response to her daughter, Julie says, “"Yes, Darling, I believe that it IS possible for somebody to hit you, good and hard, and for it not to hurt." This romantic approach to domestic violence is disturbing, especially when it comes from the most sympathetic character in the show. But many books, films and productions from 50 years ago and more contain casual racism and other attitudes unacceptable today. However, you don't have to agree with its thesis to admire an art work, although this may well lessen your emotional involvement. I would prefer that “Carousel” didn't espouse this acceptance of woman as victim, but in Opera North's fine production, the love story and the wonderful score combine to overcome this shortcoming.