When opera companies take it upon themselves to perform musicals, it naturally raises a few suspicions. Are they strapped for cash? Is their commitment to true opera on the wane?
Opera Australia has certainly copped some flak for its succession of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals over recent years. But when State Opera South Australia chose Carousel as the curtain-raiser for its 2021 season, one did sense that some radical changes are in the air.
Well of course they are. In these restrictive times, Adelaide denizens are lucky to have any performances at all, whether from our resident opera company or from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, which managed to find the time to share the stage in this concert version of the famous 1945 musical. And in these distracted times, a feel-good musical is perhaps the best medicine of all.
Although that would be to call Carousel short, because, against a 1940s backdrop of idealistic romance and homemaking, it raises fairly serious questions about human failing.
Billy Bigelow, the sacked carousel barker, is an angry young man who hits his girlfriend Julie and, when given a chance to redeem himself by the Starkeeper up on high, his teenage daughter as well.
These scenes make one recoil, and the show ends with fierce irony when the outed Billy wanders off miserably by himself while his clan unite in the final joyous chorus ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Life is all over for him.
With today’s drive to end violence against women, the story of Carousel has perhaps even more burning relevance now than it did in 1909 when Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár penned Liliom, the play on which Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical is based.
This fully acted but un-staged performance directed by Stuart Maunder really hit a nerve. Ben Mingay turned Billy into a bellowing oaf of a character who tried but repeatedly failed to overcome the error of his ways. He sang with tremendous vocal force, fairly ripping the air with his unrivalled diaphragm power.
As the young millworker Julie Jordan who falls in love with him, Desiree Frahn came across as a woman of heart and fibre. She could stand up to Billy’s initial taunts, suffer his abuse, and ultimately find goodness in him. In ‘If I Loved You’, she pulled the tempo right back to create the show’s moment of purest magic. Perfect for the role, her voice possessed fullness and sweetness in equal measure.
Other characters add to Carousel’s emotional complexity and were especially well drawn in this performance. An effective subplot involves Julie’s friend Carrie Pipperidge and her fiancée Enoch Snow as representing the more ‘ideal’, if emotionally shallow, couple. Johanna Allen held the stage superbly both as singer and actress in the former role while Benjamin Rasheed earned comic points in the latter.
Dimity Shepherd (Nettie Fowler), Nicholas Cannon (Jigger Craigin) and Douglas McNicol (The Starkeeper/Dr Seldon) were equally wonderful and strong, helping make this show sparkle. Catherine Campbell added welcome snarl and grit as Mrs Mullin, owner of the fairground carousel where all the action takes place.
The cast adopted obligatory American accents with mixed results, but the choruses were terrific.
Sharing the stage, the ASO sounded rather glorious with this Broadway score. Appealingly tuneful it certainly is, although one would hardly say it qualifies as concert music – and of course, it is not meant to be. Under conductor Brett Weymark’s direction, it bounded along with pleasing energy.
If State Opera is judicious about its choices, this kind of venture could be worth repeating. But let it not get side-tracked from its main game, opera.