Opera North has a reputation for giving deserving musicals the full treatment, although when this production first appeared at the Grand Theatre in 2012, there were a few sour comments on how it was somehow demeaning that so many resources should be devoted to it, and for Richard Rodgers to follow Giacomo Puccini on the repertoire list. Strangely enough, Puccini tried unsuccessfully to obtain permission to use Liliom, a dark and fascinating fairy-tale of a play once briefly fashionable in America which provides the basic plot line for Carousel, but Ferenc Molnár, the author, was bagged by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Molnár’s mix of harsh reality, fantasy, the natural, the supernatural and young love was transformed into something magical which has made a remarkably successful (and lucrative) journey from its first performances in 1945 right up to the present day. It could be added to any opera house’s repertoire with pride, no doubt about that.

Opera North's <i>Carousel</i> © Alastair Muir
Opera North's Carousel
© Alastair Muir

As the full orchestra plays the Carousel Waltz in Act I (conducted by James Holmes), a spot picks out a solitary child – Young Billy – behind a gauze with an enormous depiction of blue Planet Earth on it, which lifts for the pantomimic exposition as the audience is suddenly immersed in the action. Moving shadows, human and equine, flood past above heads, thanks to Bruno Poet’s intelligent lighting design. The body of the show with its themes is put quickly in place: the darknesses behind the romance, the neglected little outsider who will grow up to pass on the neglect to future generations and the moral message of the whole show. As Doctor Seldon says in his address to the graduation class at the very end: “The world belongs to you as much as to the next feller. Don’t give it up!” I am soon reminded of how much I was moved three years ago, and hope for a repeat of the experience. I am not disappointed.

Gillene Butterfield (Julie Jordan) and Keith Higham (Billy Bigelow) © Alastair Muir
Gillene Butterfield (Julie Jordan) and Keith Higham (Billy Bigelow)
© Alastair Muir
Jo Davies, the original director (revival director Ed Goggins) updated the action to the years 1915–1930, which cannot have been too difficult because of the timeless story, and which dispensed with movement-impeding flounces. Movement is wonderfully managed here, following Agnes de Mille’s well-tried prescriptions (choreographer Kay Shepherd, revival choreographer David James Hulston), chorus members blending seamlessly with dance professionals in amazing displays, often astoundingly gymnastic. Davies created a level of sobriety as well: these characters are mostly simple, clean-spirited working people in affordable clothes, practical when necessary. The simplicity is enhanced by careful attention to detail. The opening of Act II, for example, seems played down, with “A Real Nice Clambake” sounding just as it should (chorus master Anthony Kraus) after a big seafood feast. A drunk lies flat out, straw hats are askew, a woman swigs from a bottle and a man at the back vomits repeatedly on to the beach. On the other hand, the botched robbery later in the same act is rushed, rather clunky – probably Hammerstein’s fault.

Keith Higham as Billy Bigelow has an interesting degree of complexity, leaning away a little from the roughneck, bullying side, possibly too quickly likeable. He begins to soar when he reaches his part of “If I Loved You”, and really takes off in “Soliloquy”, a party piece amongst party pieces, with a sweet and strong baritone voice and close attention to the meanings in Hammerstein’s great lyrics. He has had plenty of opportunities to absorb them because he was a chorus member in the 2012 production, playing Billy in matinees.

Joseph Shovelton (Enoch Snow) and Aoife O'Sullivan (Carrie Pipperidge) © Alastair Muir
Joseph Shovelton (Enoch Snow) and Aoife O'Sullivan (Carrie Pipperidge)
© Alastair Muir

It was good to see Gillene Butterfield again as good-hearted Julie Jordan, her voice reflecting very accurately the character’s rapidly changing emotions, at her best in Act II with “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’”. Yvonne Howard’s sumptuous voice and rather grand presence makes Nettie Fowler into an appropriately warm, matronly character, and Joseph Shovelton is a perky and straightforward Enoch Snow who becomes properly ridiculous in Act II at the head of a line of his over-disciplined offspring, who are not disciplined for verbally bullying Louise, Billy's daughter.Stage Calvinists attract this sort of treatment. As a greedy throwback of a paterfamilias with a tame wife devoted to baby production, he is arguably as much an abuser as Billy with his fists. The wife in question, Carrie Pipperidge, is played with enormous charm by Aoife O’Sullivan. Her “Mr Snow” was truly memorable, full of adolescent passion. The archetypal villain, the criminal trickster Jigger Craigin, is played by Stuart Neal, with plenty of rapid moves, devilment dripping from him throughout, and Michele Moran gives us a really hard-edged Mrs Mullin. Alex Newton as Louise Bigelow is absolutely outstanding in her acting and her dancing in the Act II ballet.

And so to the anthem, beloved by Liverpudlian football fans – those most operatic of people – “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. This was sung with intensely affecting, reined in passion by the masses on stage, who might have been worried about getting too carried away. The audience did not cry much, but it did stand to applaud.