Since their staging of Show Boat two decades ago, Opera North have frequently dipped into the world of the musical and the operetta, breathing new life into some of our favourite shows. In recent memory, their creative reinventions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore and Lehár’s The Merry Widow have proved popular, and now they have turned their hand to the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Carousel. Based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár, Carousel tells the story of Julie Jordan, a penniless mill girl who falls for the charms of bad-boy fairground worker Billy Bigelow. The course of true love doesn’t exactly run smooth, with the doomed lovers grappling with poverty, domestic violence and the temptations of crime from the very beginning. A dramatic tear-jerker featuring a host of popular songs (‘If I Loved You’, ‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’ and the universally adored ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to name but a few), Carousel is operatic in its scope and an obvious choice for an opera company wishing to embrace a big Broadway classic.

Opera North’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel: Eric Greene as Billy Bigelow and © Alastair Muir
Opera North’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel: Eric Greene as Billy Bigelow and
© Alastair Muir

Production designer Anthony Ward has created a magical set on which carousel ponies rise and fall in time with the ‘Carousel Waltz’, sparkling blossoms float down gently from the sky and heaven is a glamorous movie by MGM. It’s a visual delight, but not there simply to make us smile. Integrated into this spectacular world are the harsher backdrops of the dilapidated shoreline and the claustrophobic shack which Billy and Julie are forced to share with her Aunt Nettie. Both serve as a reminder of the difficult realities the pair must constantly battle with, an idea that is strengthened by the ever-present structure of the carousel, which hangs over their heads as if to indicate that Billy has little chance of escaping his roots.

The romance between English soprano Gillene Herbert’s Julie and American baritone Eric Greene’s Billy doesn’t exactly sizzle, and at times it is difficult to believe in their love story, but despite this lack of chemistry, Greene’s interpretation of the misguided drifter is extremely compelling. Less mature and streetwise than Gordon McRae’s portrayal in the classic Hollywood film, Greene’s Billy Bigelow is an outsider surrounded by a sense of sadness. Director Jo Davies doesn’t shy away from the domestic violence storyline, but here the character’s anger seems to have more to do with a lack emotional intelligence than natural aggression. This is a man, we are made to feel, who knows very little of genuine love and affection, and has never been guided as to what is right and what is wrong. As a result, we empathise with his plight as much as we do Julie’s, and are acutely affected by his eventual downfall.

Greene has star quality and is certainly the stand-out performer of this production. A talented actor with a gorgeous, booming but bright baritone, he is new to Rodgers and Hammerstein, but you wouldn’t know it. He is well supported by Joseph Shovelton’s hilarious Enoch Snow (the fisherman engaged to Julie’s best friend) and also by Michael Rouse’s stealthy, accurately accented Jigger Craigin (the villain who leads Billy astray). As always, the Chorus of Opera North produce a spirited, harmonious sound that gets feet tapping during ‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’ and pulls on the heartstrings for the final rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’

Under the baton of James Holmes, the Orchestra of Opera North make the most of what has been frequently labelled Richard Rodgers’ most operatic score. The music is lush, satisfying and emotionally manipulative. As the familiar refrains of ‘If I Loved You’ soar up from the orchestra pit again and again as the tragedy unfolds and redemption is sought, it is almost impossible to stifle a tear. However, at two hours, forty-five minutes, Carousel seems overly long and features lots of side-plots and lengthy ensemble pieces that feel somewhat unnecessary. It is also difficult to stomach the discussion of domestic violence between Julie and her daughter Louise which results in the line ‘If someone you love hits you it doesn't hurt at all.’ Despite this, Carousel is an enduringly popular show, and Opera North should be commended for this visually and musically stunning production. Go see it for the score, go see it for the set, and go see it for Eric Greene, who is surely destined for great things.