Saturday, 15 September 2012

ENO: The Magic Flute; Opera North: Carousel

First, apologies for a long absence. Here are a few links to my reviews of Proms, which went some way to keeping me busy over the summer (John Eliot Gardiner’s Pélleas here; Handel from the OAE and Concert Spirituel here, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra here, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s two concerts here and here), along with my review of Opera Holland Park’s Falstaff and Onegin, here.

Elena Xanthoudakis (Pamina) and Kathryn  Lewek (Queen of the Night)
in ENO's revival of The Magic Flute (Photo: Alastair Muir)
Meanwhile, in the last week I’ve been returning from Last-Night-of-the-Proms and End-of-the-Golden-Summer euphoria to something approaching normalcy: back to business as usual with ENO’s final (and apparently this time it really is final) revival of Nicholas Hytner’s Magic Flute on Thursday, before catching Opera North’s Carousel at the Barbican Theatre before it spins its not-so-merry way out of London after an extended season. I’ll keep my comments on The Magic Flute to a minimum, since I’m reviewing it for next month’s opera: it’s a solid enough revival, with some outstanding singing (Kathryn Lewek’s Queen of the Night was particularly impressive), but one that didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts on the first night of its 10-performance run—it surely will begin to do so as run progresses.

Inevitably, on the eve of its final weekend after a five-week run, Carousel was going to be a smoother affair; and, of course, Rogers and Hammerstein had a fair bit more practice at weaving together numbers and dialogue, within the bounds of much more clearly defined music-theatre tradition, than Mozart and Schikaneder did. Nevertheless, it was striking how awkward and stilted the delivery of the dialogue in Magic Flute seemed in comparison. And this Carousel is a brilliantly fluent show, smartly directed Jo Davies, ingeniously designed by Anthony Ward and choreographed with humour and imagination by Kay Shephard. The cast—led by Michael Todd Simpson’s hunky, broody Billy, Katherine Manley’s sweetly-sung and even-sweeter-natured Julie, and Sarah Tynan’s bright, zingy Carrie—was uniformly excellent; accents were uniformly convincing, too, in a way they certainly hadn’t been at the Coliseum the previous evening.

Opera North's Carousel (Photo: Alastair Muir)
In his Guardian review, Michael Billington referred to the Carousel’s ‘dodgy brilliance’, and, coming to it totally unprepared, I was struck not only by the quality of the music, but also what can only really be called the show’s philosophical ambition, with its flawed (anti-)hero Billy Bigelow dying and going to the afterlife before being given a chance to see his now-teenage daughter. This confrontation with her, however, highlights the work’s ‘dodgier’ side. He ends up hitting her, but, as she talks it over with her mother Julie, they agree that it’s one of those blows that feels a bit more like a kiss: a good thwack from someone who loves you is really, er, a tender expression of affection. It’s a deeply sinister message, and one that no number of reprises of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ can hope to dignify.

And, with Wednesday’s revelations regarding the betrayal of Hillsborough families, that song brought its independent power and associations with it more strongly than ever. I began to feel—against all my completist instincts and contextualising desires—that maybe it was better employed on Wednesday in front of Liverpool's St. George’s Hall than it was here. 

Nevertheless, this show demonstrated once more what interesting work is being done at Opera North, and Davies is to be commended for presenting Carousel with wharts-and-all candour: there’s enough sweetness in the score already to start sugar-coating its more troubling elements. 

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