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Carousel: Opera North, The Barbican
It was quite a shock initially: at the Barbican the words actually seem to come out of the singers’ mouths, not from loudspeakers. This production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel comes from Opera North, whose singers don’t, of course, need the usual massive amplification. Opera North has a long and successful history of presenting Broadway classics alongside more conventional operatic fare, and Carousel suits it to a tee. Using a less obviously effervescent, but beautifully crafted score to match a storyline that sometimes digs dark and deep, this is a heartfelt show that plays to the strengths of an opera company. Director Jo Davies has resisted all temptation to glam or schmaltz up the story, which concerns local girl Julie Jordan falling in love with fairground hand Billy Bigelow. Billy is ever short of cash, however, and gets involved in a robbery that goes disastrously wrong. Davies lets plenty of fresh air into her production, but keeps a raw edge too. Her approach is matched by Anthony Ward’s wood-plank set design, which also delivers some memorable special effects. For instance, the carousel ride on which Billy works is magically assembled together in seconds as the parts whizz in from the wings and the flytower above — I really felt for the Noyce family who spend hours erecting their carousel at St Giles’ Fair each year. The tricky business of staging Billy’s judgement day in Heaven is most effectively handled by making it an audition for a silent movie part, presided over by the magisterial John Woodvine, playing the director.
As you would expect from Opera North, vocal preparation has been every bit as careful and thoughtful as it would be for Mozart or Puccini. The singing is demanding, so there are duplicate casts for the principal roles. On press night, Katherine Manley sang beautifully and freshly as Julie, and so did Sarah Tynan as Julie’s friend Carrie Pipperidge: their duet, You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan! was a highspot. Equally good was Yvonne Howard as Nettie Fowler — her June is Bustin’ Out All Over was splendidly exuberant, while in contrast You’ll Never Walk Alone, sung clean and free of saccharine, brought a tear to my eye. The chorus and team of dancers were both first-rate.
My only vocal beef was with Michael Todd Simpson’s Billy: his thin delivery seemed at odds with Billy’s explosive character. In the pit, James Holmes conducted with panache, but — here comes a second beef — the Royal Ballet Sinfonia sometimes sounded uncommitted. Make no mistake though, Opera North have done Rodgers and Hammerstein proud with this production.
Until September 15. Tickets: barbican.org.uk or 020 7638 8891.