When Liliom, the play upon which Carousel is based, first gained global acclaim in the early 1920’s composer Giacomo Puccini begged playwright Ferenc Molnar to grant him the rights to turn it into an opera. Molnar turned Puccini down flat. “Liliom is my masterpiece,” he said, “and I want it to be remembered as a Molnar play, not as the libretto for a Puccini opera.”
A little more than twenty years later, after being taken to see Oklahoma!, he granted the musical rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein paving the way for the pair to write what Time Magazine would call “The Greatest Musical of the Twentieth Century.”
Had it been written by Puccini, I am sure Opera North would have staged many productions of the musical Liliom over the years. As it is, we have had to wait until now to see and hear how a major opera company would tackle the most operatic of Broadway musicals and boy, they have done it brilliantly.
Richard Rodgers, who with his rich melodic and harmonic gifts I consider to be the Puccini of Broadway, was asked if he had ever been tempted to write an opera. He replied that he and Hammerstein were sorely tempted a couple of times, and he imagined Carousel in those terms. If, like their leading man Billy Bigelow they could look down from heaven and see this production, they surely would be delighted.
Nicholas Hytner’s 1993 National Theatre production reminded us what a classic show Carousel is. This production, while not forgetting the importance of the acting, focuses as one might expect on the music. It does not diminish the importance of Oscar Hammerstein’s superb book and lyrics, but it is in Richard Rodgers’ music that the true glory of this Carousel lies. It is like seeing a great painting that having been hidden in the vaults for a number of years, has been lovingly brought back to life by a master restorer.
Director Jo Davis stamped her own authority on the production. Her decision to use the prologue to show Billy’s back story was clever and I thought moving the story from 1873 to 1915 worked well. The production was well paced and had a good narrative flow. I especially enjoyed the setting of the introduction to the Act 2 ballet, transforming Heaven’s backyard into a movie set. Perhaps only in the final graduation scene, when Billy is at last able to help his family did the direction lack a certain clarity.
Gillene Herbert was entirely convincing as Julie, the strong New England girl who would survive whatever life threw at her, whilst Eric Greene as Billy showed us a tortured soul struggling with the unfamiliar emotions of love and fatherhood. They nailed the classic Bench Scene and If I Loved You completely.
Claire Boulter was a comedic delight as Carrie and Joseph Shovelton as her beau, Enoch Snow excelled too. Together with Elena Ferrrari as Nettie , whose rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone was spine tingling, the entire cast sang their roles superbly. A special word of praise too for the chorus – seldom can the big set piece numbers such as June is Busting Out All Over have sounded better.
Anthony Ward’s uncluttered but effective sets and Bruno Poet’s lighting were a delight and Kay Shepherd’s choreography, sometimes lusty, sometimes tender, enhanced the story exactly as it was supposed to do..
James Holmes conducted the Birmingham Royal Ballet with a great feeling for the music. If I have one gripe it is that Richard Rodgers composed the score with a full orchestra in mind. When Carousel opened on Broadway the pit contained thirty-nine musicians. For this production there is twenty-nine. With such wonderful voices on stage it is a shame that they could not be backed by the full orchestra that the composer had in mind.
Nonetheless, this is a wonderful production and one that will live long in my memory. I do hope that Carousel stays in Opera North’s repertoire and I hope also that other opera company’s add it to theirs.
Opera or musical? In the end it does not matter for what is certain is that Carousel is magnificent theatre.