Should opera singers do musicals?

1 Sep

I went to Carousel on 30th August.  The original production is by Opera North and is playing at the Barbican until 15th September with some of the original cast, the Royal Ballet orchestra and, I think, a new chorus.  It’s a co-production with the Chatelet.

I think that, technically at least, Carousel is one of the masterpieces of the Broadway musical and is easily the most interesting of the Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces.  I’ve a particular fondess for the first act where the sheer mastery of the way dialogue and musical numbers intertwine, particularly the duets in the early part, is fluent and works absolutely brilliantly.  I think that the whole soliloquy for Billy including “My Boy Bill” has the range and emotion of the finest operatic arias.  I part company from some of the ideas now and then, particularly the whole heaven business towards the end.  I think the issues around wife beating are more complex than they demonstrate here, but it’s a very good stab for a Broadway musical at the subject.  The text is as interesting and well constructed as the music.  And, of course, there are really good tunes and, at the end, I didn’t bother to try to restrain the tears.  It’s a superb piece of music theatre.

Opera North have a really good record with musicals.  I retain very fond memories of their Showboat, Sweeney Todd (as good a production of the piece as I’ve seen) and One Touch of Venus and I think that it’s good that opera companies should do them: they’re part of the same tradition and they widen a company’s focus and experience.  Here we had a very fine production by Jo Davies, whose Ruddigore last year was as good a production of a Gilbert and Sullivan piece as I’ve seen.  She had the style pretty much pitch perfect, Anthony Ward’s sets looked good, the show danced and sparkled.  There good accompaniment by the orchestra under John Rigby, the choreography by Kim Brandstrup was really good and the show packed a punch.

The main problem was what caused my heading to this post.  The leads were in the hands of people who have successful operatic careers and their voices trained as such.  They have a different method of singing which pays almost too much attention to the notes and the musical phrasing, rather than using the words and their sense as the clue to the way you sing them.  It doesn’t apply to everyone: two of my favourite discs are of Bryn Terfel and Thomas Hampson singing Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter respectively.  Hampson is wonderful in the EMI CD of Kiss Me Kate, but listen to Josephine Barstow murder “I hate men” on that disc and you will see what I mean.  I call it “singing in inverted commas”, exaggeratedly enunciating the words and completely losing the flow and impact of the numbers.  It’s not just musicals – it can be a problem in Gilbert and Sullivan and Offenbach too.

In this production, Eric Greene does not make a bad Billy Bigelow at all – he manages the good-hearted complexity and basic stupidity of the man really well and managed the dialogue well.  But I felt he spoiled “My Boy Bill” by trying to sing it too beautifully, by pausing to enunciate particular words where the sense and impetus of the music required him to move on.  The violence was missing.  A similar problem afflicted Elena Ferrari as Nettie Fowler – “You’ll never walk alone” was done perfectly nicely, but without the directness that musical singers bring – it felt contrived.

It was less of a problem for Claire Boulter who, I thought, was lovely as Carrie Pipperidge or Joseph Shovelton as Enoch Snow (he has done quite a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan) but Gillene Herbert as Julie had that problem, though she acted and did the dialogue with conviction and dignity.  Michael Rouse displayed much more of the style as Jigger Craigin.  The remainder were very strong and John Woodvine did a lovely turn as the Starkeeper.  I thought that the chorus did their turns wonderfully well: here we had the benefits of clear, accurate and very fine ensemble singing while acting convincingly and enjoying themselves: their big numbers came over really well.

So there’s lots going for it and it may be that the other cast has some stronger performances but, on this showing, I wouldn’t particularly class it as a “must see”.

This is the second year the Barbican has used a musical to fill August. For last year’s South Pacific, I was inundated with half price offers for it.  I was reassured by the fact that there were no such offers for this.   This wasn’t borne out.  When I came to pick up my Upper Circle tickets, I was offered an upgrade to some much better seats at the back of the stalls and it was clear that lots of other people were too.  This show was much better than the South Pacific which had obviously lost a lot of its Broadway glamour in the crossing and had received better reviews.  But the seat prices are high, the Barbican isn’t actually known as a musical venue and is a bit off the beaten track of people who might think of going to it.  I wonder if they’ll try to continue the tradition next year.


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