It is always an unalloyed pleasure to hear Richard Rodgers's swooning melodies and Oscar Hammerstein's heartfelt, poignant lyrics for their 1945 Broadway masterpiece Carousel again. This is probably the greatest of their astonishing run of musicals that defined Broadway between 1944 (when Oklahoma! premiered) and 1959 (The Sound of Music). It has an operatic grandeur, dramatic depth and piercing feeling in equal measure.
So there's no dumbing down for English National Opera to now include it in their repertoire by offering a straight 41-performance run of the show under the banner of their partnership with the GradeLinnit Company (who are also behind the separate newly-opened West End production of 42nd Street) that has previously yielded revivals of Sweeney Todd (with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in 2015) and last year's Sunset Boulevard (with Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, in a production that has currently taken the show back to Broadway).
And they've provided the show with serious operatic chops by fielding Alfie Boe - no stranger to the Coliseum stage, where he has regularly appeared in starring roles for ENO -- and crossover opera singing star Katherine Jenkins to lead the cast as carnival barker Billy Bigelow and millworker Julie Jordan who fall in love early on, but then find themselves locked into unhappy co-dependence.
As Julie comes to realise in the achingly lovely 'What's the use of wond'rin', "Common sense may tell you that the ending will be sad/ And now's the time to break and run away/ But what's the use of wond'rin if the ending will be sad/ He's your fella and you love him there's nothing more to say."
To which you might, after seeing (and particularly hearing) this revival, be tempted to say, 'What's the use of wond'rin if they can act or if they can't/ they sing it gorgeously and there's nothing more to say.'
There's no question that the musical qualities in this show are exemplary with a full-blooded and even fuller-bodied orchestra of 40, visible throughout on a elevated orchestra pit, giving the musical texture and heft under the baton of David Charles Abell. And with the 12 principals and 25-strong ensemble augmented by 24 members of the ENO chorus, there is strength in numbers.
But even these musical glories can't make up for the respectively stiff and stilted scenes between Boe and Jenkins when they are not singing. There is little sign of the rapture and unease between them that the songs so gloriously summons. The other leading romantic couple -- Alex Young's Carrie Pipperidge and Gavin Spokes's Enoch Snow - are far more convincing (though I was sad that Carrie's description of attending a Shakespeare performance in New York that only made her sleepy was cut). There's also a robustly sung Nettie Fowler from former X Factor semi-finalist Brenda Edwards, who despite those credentials is also not dumbing down ENO with her presence.
The show is described as 'semi-staged', which accounts for a design that is mostly static projections of painted landscapes but makes it feel rather old-fashioned. Sprightly and athletic country dancing by choreographer Josh Rhodes adds variety, though this is nowhere in the league of the great Kenneth Macmillan's work on the National's famous 1992 revival of the show.
What the Press Said...
"A woeful lack of acting talent...it’s fine… if you close your eyes. "
Susannah Clapp for The Guardian
"The almost excruciating loveliness of the score is brilliantly served by David Charles Abell’s symphony-sized orchestra."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Musically ravishing but emotionally underpowered."
Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times
"Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins show off their pipes but their relationship lacks chemistry."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard