Get Baku! Get Baku! Get Baku to where you once belonged!

Yes, people, it’s here again! It’s the event we’ve all been waiting for! It’s the year’s most glittering televisual extravaganza! It’s a breathtaking transnational celebration of human rights abuses the very best in popular music! It’s an occasion so exciting that by the end of it I may very well have run out of exclamation marks! It’s! It’s! It’s…

…oh, right, the ibuprofen and the antihistamines just kicked in. It’s the Eurovision Song Contest. Again. And I’m not live-blogging it because jamming red-hot pokers into my eyes and ears would make a mess of the carpet. I recorded it earlier, and while I have managed to remain spoiler-free I reserve the right to make judicious use of the fast-forward button because, really, how much trauma can one person reasonably be expected to take in a single evening?

Also, I don’t drink, so I can’t numb the pain by doing a shot every time something ridiculous happens. Yes, folks, just for you, I am watching this sober. I hope you’re impressed.

And no, before you ask, I did not watch the semi-finals. What do you think I am? A masochist?

ANYway. So. We’re in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. And yes, I can find it on a map (Caspian Sea, left-hand side, about a third of the way up). Azerbaijan has vast, vast quantities of petrodollars. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan doesn’t exactly have an unblemished record when it comes to basic human rights, but never mind. They won Eurovision last year, so here we are. We open with a panning shot across Baku’s skyline, a prominent feature of which is a trio of skyscrapers that are designed to look like gas flames, just in case anyone was in any danger of forgetting where Azerbaijan’s money comes from.  Don’t mention the torture, or the intimidation of journalists, or the… no, really, don’t. There’s bound to be lots of glitter, so who cares about basic concepts of freedom as enshrined in all manner of international conventions and treaties?

There’s a four-hour time difference between Azerbaijan and the UK, so the show began at midnight local time. Given that Eurovision usually involves a level of kitsch that could not be brought forth without someone on the production team calling on the dark arts, this seems oddly appropriate. We start with fireworks, then ten seconds of a traditional singer, and then… oh my. It’s a troupe of male dancers in floaty white rainwear, some of which glows under a black light. And two of them fly over the audience.

Clearly, this year’s telecast is going to be even less restrained than usual.

Now there are traditional dancers. They’re elegant. They’re graceful. They’re obviously doomed. This section of the opening is tasteful, and yet it’s been allowed to go on for more than twenty seconds. That’s disappointing. And we haven’t even met the presenters yet! Well, apart from Graham Norton, snarking in the background.

Things kick off in earnest with a repeat performance of last year’s winning song, ‘Running Scared’. There are two people on a trapeze over the singers’ heads. Fortunately, we only get one verse before the number ends with big jets of flame shooting out of the sides of the stage. The subtext we’re meant to take away from this, presumably, is that any act unlucky enough to score Nul Points will  be barbecued.

And now, finally – Finally! – it’s time to meet our hosts. Leyla and Nargiz. Nargiz, apparently, is a lawyer. She should sue whoever measured her for her dress, which seems to be squeezing one of her boobs out like toothpaste from a tube. And they’re joined by the faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaabulous Eldar Gasimov, last year’s winner. He’s a bit like Nick Jonas, only bland.

Ooh. Change in the rules. Phone voting doesn’t open until every act has performed. You’d think this would be the sensible way to do things, but no, it’s a first.

Aaand we’re off. And Britain’s first, represented by a face off Mount Rushmore Engelbert Humperdinck. The outside of the hall is lit up with Union Jacks. The song is in 3/4 time, and magnificently cheesy, and Mr. Humperdinck – who really does sing ‘luurve’ – looks a bit like a chipmunk in a black single-breasted suit. There’s a pair of black-clad ballroom dancers behind him, and Mantovani wants his string section back. The song’s not bad, but Mr. Humperdinck’s big money notes at the end, I’m afraid, are a bit approximate. He’s 76, maybe he should have dropped the key a tone. It’s not embarrassing – which puts it several steps above our last few entries – but it’s also, I think, not a winner, and performing first won’t help his chances.

Now we’re off to Hungary. And yes, the outside of the hall lights up in the colours of Hungary’s national flag. Compact Disco (geddit?) with ‘Sound of our Hearts’. Power ballad, sounds like an odd cross between early Boyzone without the harmonies and late Ultravox, sung by a less charismatic Marti Pellow clone who’s wearing an oddly rigid black leather coat. Competent but uninspiring, nicely sung, could have come from any country in Europe at nearly any point in the last twenty-five years. Move on, there’s nothing to see here.

Albania. She’s a ‘devoted experimental jazz singer’, apparently. Mr. Norton tells us that she can ‘do extraordinary things with her voice. Not pleasant things, but extraordinary’. And she seems to be wearing a cruller on her head. Rona Nishliu, she’s called, bringing us ‘Suus’. The tinkly piano intro isn’t bad. Her singing, however, certainly is, although it pales next to her astonishing gown, which seems to be modelled on a British Airways club class seat circa 1993. She seems to be simultaneously channeling Bjork, Enya, and Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’, with some startling high notes thrown in, presumably to bring every dog in Azerbaijan to heel.

Now. Lithuania. Donny Montell. ‘Love is Blind’. We’re in Mathis territory. He’s wearing a sequinned blindfold. I’m kind of hoping he’ll lose his footing and go crashing over the front of the stage, because the song he’s singing is stunningly boring. Oh – no, wait, a beat has come in, he’s ripped off the blindfold, and now he’s started dancing. He’s about 22, and he dances like… well, imagine Zac Efron impersonating Miss Piggy while receiving electroshock therapy.

Five. Bosnia-Herzegovina. Maya Sar, singing ‘Korake Ti Znam’. Big shoulder-pads, grand piano, pretty voice, meaningfully tortured facial expressions. As the song gets more and more overwrought, she gets up from the piano and a wind machine kicks in. At Eurovision, this is what passes for restraint.

Six. Russia. The grandmas. Buranovskiye Babushki, bringing us ‘Party for Everybody’. Oh dear Lord, there’s a prop oven onstage and they’re wearing traditional dress. Yes, it’s a novelty act. They look like they’re having a nice time, and the oven is spinning behind them. Perhaps it’s Satanic. As the number approaches what – please, God – I hope is the climax, they pass a tray of pastries around. It’s simultaneously completely horrendous and absolutely irresistible. This, I’m afraid, is the kind of moment that makes us watch Eurovision.

Iceland. Greta Salome and Jonsi, with a song called ‘Never Forget’. According to Mr. Norton, their song is possibly more suitable for a musical than for Eurovision. Jonsi might be a vampire – he seems to have fangs – and Greta is toting a violin and grinning like she’s under hypnosis. The song reminds me a little of ‘Which Witch’, the Norwegian Operamusical, which I actually saw, and which I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to forget. It’s bland, bombastic, and not bad enough to be memorable. Unlike ‘Which Witch’.

Ooh. Cyprus. I’m going there later this year. Ivi Adamou, with ‘La La Love’. Standard-issue Mediterranean-resort Eurodisco, for some reason performed on and around a pile of books. It’ll go down a storm in the beach bars, but it won’t win this evening.

France. Anggun, singing ‘Echo (You And I)’, performing with the French Gymnastics Olympic team, whose shirts seem to still be in the suitcase they forgot to pick up at the airport. Anggun is wearing a bronze breastplate with matching net curtains (by Jean-Paul Gaultier, apparently), and she’s wasted on this song, which is another slab of white-bread Europop.

Italy. Nina Zilli, ‘L’Amore e Femmina (Out of Love)’. Nice bluesy beginning. She’s sort of like a clean Amy Winehouse. She can sing, the song isn’t bad, and she and her backing singers are clearly having fun with it. In fact, I think she might be having Albania and Iceland’s fun as well. This is about as classy as Eurovision gets, and I hope she does well. Which means she’s obviously doomed.

Estonia. Ott Lepland, with ‘Kuula’. You know what’s nice, Mr. Lepland? Singing with your eyes open. It’s terribly, terribly sincere and meaningful, and he does, at least, hit his high note dead on… oh, wait. No. He hit his first high note dead on, but not the second, third or fourth. Never mind. I feel less bad about fast-forwarding through the rest of his very, very boring song now.

(Who am I kidding? I don’t feel bad about fast-forwarding through the rest of his boring song at all. I recorded it specifically so I could fast-forward through the boring songs.)

OK. Norway. Tooji, with ‘Stay’. Norway have won a couple of times in recent-ish memory, but they also gave us Jahn Teigen, who scored nul points in 1978. This could go either way. Ooh. Acrobats. A guy in a hoodie with big rings on his fingers. Synths and a drum machine. He’s so… clean. It’s like watching Justin Bieber trying to cover the Beastie Boys. I lasted twenty seconds, I hope you’re grateful.

A momentary pause. Nargiz – whose boob is still trying to break free of the side of her dress – is interviewing Mr. Humperdinck. He had a great time and sang from the heart, apparently. That’s nice.

Now it’s the home team. Sabina Babayeva, ‘When the Music Dies’. This is Eurovision, so that title is probably redundant – music died here in rehearsals, long before we tuned in. She’s wearing a pair of dead swans as reimagined by Dynasty-era Joan Collins, and her song sounds like every power ballad you’ve ever heard. She can sing, but she doesn’t quite have the power to slam it home in suitable melodramatic style. Fortunately, there are lighting effects that can do that for her.

Oh. I just found out precisely when the music died: at the beginning of her big high note at the end of the song. Ouch. Well, to be exact, it didn’t die so much as commit hari-kiri. You can actually see the note’s entrails flailing across the front of the stage. Someone get a mop before the next act comes out. There could be a nasty accident.

Romania. Mandinga – apparently, a Romanian-Cuban combo – with ‘Zaleilah’. The singer is gorgeously curvy, the song is a giant slab of Latin-tinged Euro-cheese, and her backing band look like a gaggle of flamboyantly gay Energizer Bunnies who have somehow stumbled into the Pet Shop Boys’ video for ‘Go West’. One of them is carrying a set of toy bagpipes. Another has a bright red accordion. It’s… amazing. More like this, please.

Denmark. Soluna Samay, ‘Should’ve Known Better’. Yes, than to dress like Captain Sensible. The song is competently-executed guitar-driven indie-ish pop. Fast-forward time. That’s not what we’re here for.

Greece. Eleftheria Eleftheriou, with ‘Aphrodisiac’. There are bouzoukis – or a bouzouki synth setting, at least – along with hyperactive dancing and a catchy aa-aa-aa oh-oh-oh chorus. It’s bonkers, but possibly not bonkers enough.

Ah. Sweden. A favourite, apparently. Loreen – not Soreen, Loreen – with ‘Euphoria’. She’s like a cross between Kate Bush and Kate Ryan. No, really, she’s obviously seen Kate Bush’s dance moves from ‘Babooshka’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. The song is another slab of by-the-numbers Eurodisco, and the performance ends with her getting felt up by a dancer. It’s not completely horrible, but if this is the favourite to win, it’s a bad year.

And now Eldard’s back, introducing Turkey. Turkey’s entries are often very, very special, so I have high hopes. Can Bonomo, ‘Love Me Back’. The choreography resembles an international breakdancing class taking place in an iron foundry, flying sparks and all. The dancers have bare sleeves and grey cloth bat-wings attached at their wrists. No, I don’t know why either. It’s camper than Butlins, and the homoerotic subtext would be off the charts if the performance wasn’t so completely sexless. It’s like watching six Ken dolls do the expurgated version of a Turkish-themed disco medley. You can’t get this anywhere else on television.

Spain. Pastora Soler, ‘Quédate Conmigo’. It’s power ballad time again. It starts very soft, and builds to the pitch of a declaration of war. They’re getting a lot of use out of the wind machine this evening, or maybe her top notes caused an earthquake. She did, at least, hit very nearly all of them, which is more than can be said for several of this evening’s contestants. I think I liked the quiet bit of her song better. It was very short.

Germany. Song co-written by Jamie Cullen. Roman Lob, ‘Standing Still’. Pleasant, boring pop song. No staging tricks, just the singer, drums, piano, bass and guitar (and, um, the orchestra in the background). Where’s the cheese? There’s nothing distinctive about it at all – good or bad – which means it almost certainly won’t win.

Home stretch now. Malta. Kurt Kalleja, ‘This Is The Night’. More Eurodisco, but it’s fun – this is a very entertaining slice of disposable pop music with a catchy chorus, performed without any kind of pretentious concept by people who can actually sing, and who look like they’re having a good time on stage but don’t grin like they’ve hoovered up every illegal substance within a half-mile of the stadium through their noses.

Macedonia. Kaliopi, ‘Crno i Belo’. Another quiet, emotional beginning with a tinkly piano in the background – that and cheesy Eurodisco are this year’s two recurring musical themes. She can sing – really well – but the song goes to hell when the guitars and drums come in. What started as a pretty piano ballad very quickly descends into something that Bonnie Tyler would have rejected for being too unsubtle. Shame.

Aaaaand they’re back. Yes, it’s Jedward, the Irish entertainment industry’s joined-at-the-hip punchline, assaulting the senses with a ditty called ‘Waterline’. They entered last year as well. This year, they’ve ditched the vertical hairdos, and seem to be dressed as gold toy soldiers off a Christmas tree. The song is written-by-rote Anglo dance pop, they can’t really sing, the choreography is ridiculous, and – just like last year – they do it with magnificent conviction, even though I think I just saw the word ‘tacky’ get redefined. And yes, that’s a real fountain in the middle of the stage. They get soaked at the end, which given their costumes brings new meaning to the term ‘golden shower’. Unfortunately, the water doesn’t short out their radio mikes.

Serbia. Zeljko Joksimovic, ‘Nije Ljubav Stvar’. Everybody looks terribly serious, and he’s not the first singer this evening to start singing with his eyes closed. This is, however, the first performance tonight to feature a man in a skirt playing the clarinet. As for Mr. Joksimovic, I’m sure his mother thinks he’s wonderful, but it’s fast-forward time.

Second-to-last song now: Ukraine, Gaitana, ‘Be My Guest’. She’s dressed entirely in white tassels (OK, apart from the flowers in her hair), men in day-glo dresses break-dance behind her (sometimes they have trumpets), the video projections are a bad acid trip gone wrong, and the song is the evening’s worst contribution to the Eurodisco canon. It’s completely, magnificently deranged. Possibly more deranged than the Russian grandmas.

Last country. Waaaaah!  Moldova, Pasha Parfeny, bringing us a gem called ‘Lautar’. There’s some kind of accent on that first A but I can’t be arsed to go and find the right ASCII character. He’s dressed as the woodcutter in a fairytale – yes, including a leather toolbelt – and his backing singers appear to be five big-breasted extras from ‘The Flintstones’. The song is very… Moldovan. He’s selling the song as if his life depends on it. It possibly does. The choreography is insane – at one point he does strong-arm poses while the backing singers writhe on the floor. It’s the most ridiculously kitsch performance of the evening so far, including the grandmas.

So that’s it. The presenters are back to explain the voting rules. Nargiz’s boob apparently finally escaped from the clutches of the white ballgown somewhere in the later part of the show, so she’s had to confine the girls in something a little more restrictive. Her current dress – flesh-coloured, the better to disguise any escaping boobage that might occur later –  is basically underwiring with a skirt attached. Eldar looks like he’s auditioning for the role of Billy Flynn in a non-Equity road company of ‘Chicago’.  The voting is now open, so we get a recap of all the songs, so it’s now time for me to fast-forward. A lot. Unfortunately, I’ve just had another snatch of Ms. Albania’s public primal scream therapy. Don’t ever say I’m not prepared to suffer in the name of writing.

The presenters are plugging the CD and DVD of this year’s songs, because of course this is music you’ll want to take home and treasure forever.

And now we have another quick reminder of all the songs. Whoopee. More Albanian shrieking.

And the voting lines have closed. This year, you only got fifteen minutes to make your futile gesture.

Interval act. Lots of lasers, a parade of torches (no pitchforks, which is perhaps lucky for Ms. Albania), traditional Azerbaijani instruments. In an astonishing coincidence, Mr. Norton informs us, the pop star who will sing the lead vocal in this interval act just happens to be married to the Azerbaijani President’s daughter. Gosh. How… coincidental. This is the sort of Big Production Number they used to do on the Oscars, only twice as big. In case you might be wondering why I put myself through this crap every year: this. This bit. There’s nothing else like it on television. Dancers, drums, exploding fireballs, singers entering suspended on a wire from the flies, a light show that makes Las Vegas look like something you’d get at Wal-Mart to put on a Christmas tree. It’s amazing. It would be more amazing this year if it wasn’t being fronted by Mr. related-to-the-President-by-marriage Azerbaijani pop star, who is – how can I say this nicely? – a bit crap. Golly, I wonder how he got this gig?

And now Nargiz is terrorising people in the green room. She’s nice to the Azerbaijani singer, who seems to be chewing gum. She doesn’t really speak to anyone else much, although she does say hi to Norway. No nationalism here, then. Oh no, not at all.

I’m going to fast-forward through a lot of the scoring, because really, who wants to sit through an hour of this? Sweden takes an early lead. The voting, as usual, at least partly plays out along weirdly nationalistic lines. Jedward got a point before Mr. Humperdinck did. Given the nature of this contest, that’s not a surprise. Belgium threw him a bone, though – he doesn’t have nul points.

Nargiz has changed dresses again – black, with everything between her neck and her knees chained rigidly into place. Probably a good idea. A spillage could have proved fatal. Not to her, obviously – I think she’s remote-controlled – but perhaps to a cameraman or a member of the audience. We’re still in the bottom three, with one point; Macedonia gave Albania twelve points. That’s utterly terrifying. Denmark, after 25 countries have voted, still have nul points. Somehow I don’t think they’re going to win. Then Iceland vote, and the tables turn slightly. The UK is now bottom, nobody has nul points.

The woman announcing the Swedish vote is amazing. She has an Estuary accent and big glasses, and looks a bit like the middle-aged love-child of Kate Copstick and Giant Haystacks.

Gosh. Now we have six points. We’re still bottom. Oh, no we’re not, we’ve got another two points from Latvia. But there’s ten more countries to vote, so there’s still plenty of time for us to hit bottom again.

Nail-biting, isn’t it?

The Finnish vote, announced by Lordi (if you don’t know already, go to Google). He’s dressed as some kind of demon from the final season of ‘Angel’. And he keeps doing things with his tongue. Why is there never a giant anvil when you need one?

And the winner is… Loreen. Not the best song in this year’s contest, and not the best performance either (come to that, it’s nowhere near as good as either of the last two winners); the UK came second-to-last. Loreen, to her credit, has apparently spoken in the press about Azerbaijan’s human rights record, which – as Mr. Norton points out – is a topic that most other contestants have avoided. So Loreen gets to do her song again, and next year’s show will come from Sweden. Lucky Sweden, they get to pay for most of it.

Overall: not a vintage year. Too much bland sludge, not enough catastrophic kitsch. No dresses that sprout butterfly wings halfway through a song, no perspex pianos, no bondage gear, and a seemingly endless succession of Eurodisco songs that all sounded pretty much the same. Disappointing, although the jaw-dropping opening number and interval act slightly redressed the balance.

Still, at least we didn’t come last ( which we did two years ago). I’ll be tuning in next year, because even in a bad year there’s nothing else quite like this on television; in the meantime, here’s Loreen. No, I don’t know why she won either.

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Overheard

Yesterday afternoon, I saw Opera North’s magnificent production of Carousel at the Grand Theatre in Leeds. I love the Grand Theatre – it’s one of the most charming of Britain’s major touring theatres, and the auditorium is truly lovely – and I love the show. I’ve written a separate post praising the production to the skies; it should have been a glorious experience. It wasn’t, quite.

The problem, yet again, was disruptive behaviour from somewhere in the auditorium – in this case, exacerbated by the fact that this production is all but unamplified, which means there’s a far greater potential for what I suppose we must call noise pollution. Most of the audience, once they’d clicked into concentrating on a production that is significantly less loud than your average overamplified big musical, sat and listened very intently. A couple of mobile phones rang – there was no pre-show announcement about switching them off, and there should have been – and there was the occasional sound of crinkling candy wrappers. The biggest source of disruption, though, came from a rather more delicate source.

Somewhere in the part of the theatre where I was sitting (the dress circle, I was in the back row), several seats over to my right and not visible from where I was sitting, there was what sounded like an adult woman with some kind of severe mental disability. I never saw this person, so that’s an assumption. What I do know is that most of the show was accompanied by a stream of noise from this person – low (but not quiet) moaning, brief louder wailing, snatches of singing, and a sound that resembled a cross between throat-clearing and blowing a raspberry. I have no idea where this person was sitting, other than in one of seven rows of seats somewhere to my right; I assume she was not unaccompanied. Particularly in a very nearly unamplified production, this was significantly disruptive, and I was not the only person who remarked on it at the interval. I don’t know if anybody said anything to the front of house staff at the interval; I didn’t, partly because, God knows, I can’t help but feel for both this person and whoever was with her, and partly because I couldn’t narrow down the source of the sound any closer than a block of about 150 seats. The disruption in the first half, though, was severe enough that a competent house management should have noticed it and dealt with it off their own bat; evidently they did not, because these sounds continued all through the second half as well.

As much as I feel for this person, and for the people with her, there’s a huge disrespect for the rest of the paying audience in evidence – not on the part of the woman with the disability (the sounds definitely did not come from a child), but from whoever was with her. If you took a child to that kind of event, and they made the kind of noise that would disrupt the experience for other members of the audience, you’d take them out. If you heard a child making that kind of disruptive noise, it would be easier to talk to front of house about it.

At the back of my head, there was the terrifying notion that to make a complaint about this person would somehow be to suggest that people with disabilities should be locked away, and of course that’s not what I think at all. But I do think that anybody attending a live performance (and in this case, I specifically mean the carer/parent/whatever who accompanied this woman to the theatre) should have enough respect for the rest of the audience that they take quick, decisive steps to minimise any behaviour that might disrupt the show for other patrons, and that a competent front-of-house management should pay attention to what is going on in an auditorium during a performance and, if necessary, take action before being prompted by another ticket-holder. Yesterday afternoon’s experience fell considerably short of that. Since these noises continued unimpeded through more or less the entire performance, it’s impossible not to conclude that whoever was accompanying this individual didn’t have any respect or consideration for the rest of the audience. Given that the front-of-house staff did not appear to notice the problem, much less intervene, I’m afraid it’s also difficult not to conclude that their attitude towards their paying customers is not quite what it should be. Now, true, I didn’t complain – but the level of noise was such that I shouldn’t have had to.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved the production. And, probably, in this instance, I should have been less squeamish about coming forward and notifying front-of-house that there was a problem (me and a few hundred other people), and it’s certainly not as if either noisy audience behaviour or inept front-of-house management are at all unusual in British theatres. But going to the theatre and experiencing a show without encountering any kind of bad behaviour from other audience members is becoming the exception rather than the rule, and that’s not good enough, and I’m afraid the front-of-house management have to shoulder some of the responsibility. Theatre tickets are expensive to the degree that it is simply not acceptable for a front-of-house management to adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards disruptive behaviour, whatever the source. I’ve done the job myself, and this is not a pleasant aspect of it, but part of the house management’s job is to ensure that everyone in the auditorium experiences the performance without any disruption from other members of the audience, whether or not anyone makes a complaint. Yesterday afternoon, the front-of-house management in the Grand Theatre in Leeds did not do their job, and their customers deserved better.

Welcome to 1945.

First clue that this is not your standard-issue big musical revival, circa 2012: there’s no sound designer credited in the programme (although there is a sound engineer listed way down in the technical credits at the back). The second clue: the first few rows of seats in the Leeds Grand Theatre’s stalls are missing, swallowed up by the orchestra pit. Yes, there was a similarly-enlarged pit a few weeks ago at Wonderful Town at The Lowry as well, but trust me, it’s unusual.

This time, though, we’re here for Rodgers and Hammerstein, rather than Bernstein: Carousel, as revived by Leeds-based Opera North, which means we get their full orchestra of fifty or so players, a large chorus, and a separate troupe of dancers, and the conductor (Jonathan Gill at yesterday afternoon’s performance) takes a curtain call with the cast. Carousel is probably my favourite of all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s scores, and the opportunity to hear it with this size orchestra and chorus doesn’t come around very often. Here, the very first article in the (rather expensive) programme – before anything at all about either Rodgers and Hammerstein or the show itself – is a two-page piece about Don Walker’s original orchestrations, which were painstakingly recreated by a team from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in 2000 (the full set of charts had been missing for decades; the National Theatre revival in 1992 used a new set of orchestrations, based on the originals, by William David Brohn). Clearly, this is not a case of an opera company slumming it at the lighter end of the repertoire. It’s not an absolutely complete presentation of the score because “The Highest Judge of All” is cut (and not particularly missed; it was cut from the National Theatre production as well, and I honestly think that section of the show plays better without it), but it’s obvious that everyone involved here has the utmost respect for this material.

And, it has to be said, this production offers an absolutely glorious account of the music. The orchestra’s playing is impeccable throughout – not stiff and reverential, but gutsy and full of life – and they’re matched by the singers, right down to the last member of the chorus. Carousel is not a pretty show – at core, while it ends with the promise of redemption, it’s a dark, unhappy love story between two people who are each in their way very damaged – and for a full production to work, the material demands a great deal more than an impeccable orchestra and marvellous singers (no, I’m not going to summarise the plot – we’ve all seen it, and if you haven’t, Wikipedia offers a fuller synopsis than I would). There’s a difficult line to tread here – in the National Theatre production, Michael Hayden and Joanna Riding offered devastating acting performances as Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, but the music sat very uncomfortably on their voices, and they both strained for the higher notes. Here, we have West End actor Keith Higham as Billy (at matinees only; at evening performances the role is played by American opera singer Eric Greene) playing opposite British soprano Gillene Herbert as Julie. Neither has any difficulty at all with the music – Herbert’s “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” is as good a performance of the song as I’ve ever heard – and they create an utterly convincing portrait of this very, very troubled couple. Their bench scene – the lengthy sequence that includes “If I Loved You” – is simply flawless.

[I could, here, offer a very lengthy aside in which I traced the beginning of the concept of the ‘integrated musical’ to the bench scene in Carousel, rather than to Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration, to which far too many historians attribute far too much influence – but anybody reading this who knows me and has any kind of interest in musicals has probably heard it before, so I won’t… except to say, baldly, that I think the bench scene in Carousel was a more influential moment in the development American musical than the premiere of Oklahoma!. This is a blog post, not an academic paper, and a 5,000-word essay on the subject would be a little over the top.]

The other leads? There’s absolutely delightful work from Clara Boulter and Joseph Shovelton and Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, a beautifully-danced Louise from Beverley Grant, and a fine, rough Jigger Craigin from Michael Rouse. Towering above them all, there’s Elena Ferrari’s Nettie Fowler. Last year, I saw Ms. Ferrari give a breathtaking performance as the tragic Anna Maurrant in a chamber production of Street Scene. Yesterday, I saw her take “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and sing it simply and directly, as if nobody had ever touched it before, with no hint of grandstanding but with enormous emotional force. Her “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” was warm, funny, and absolutely charming; her “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was probably definitive. And yes, I cried, even though I know that moment in the play is shamelessly manipulative.

The production is lovely to look at, too. Director Jo Davies has shifted the plot forward in time a little, so that this production begins in 1915; that’s still almost a century ago, but it means the clothes and props are a little closer to items that would be worn/used today, and in a production in which the music is privileged above everything else, it’s a choice that takes away a little of the potential for starchiness. Anthony Ward’s set – fairground lights, a bleached treetrunk, ocean vistas, clapboard walls, wooden piers and houses – is deceptively simple and superbly evocative, as are Bruno Poet’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s (very lightly-used) video design, and between them, at the beginning of the Act Two  ballet, they manage a startling coup-de-théâtre to show Billy’s descent from Heaven back to Earth (if you haven’t seen this production and are going to in the future, I suppose this is a spoiler, so highlight the following couple of lines to read a description. Louise is first seen at the beach, in scratchy silent film projected on a clapboard wall at the back of the set. The square projected image slowly widens to become a panorama of the beach scene, and then the clapboard wall rises to reveal Louise in exactly the same spot she’d been in in the film, on the beach, in front of projected rolling waves). There’s strong, muscular choreography from Kay Shepherd, and it’s to her very, very great credit that in the crowd scenes it’s difficult to see the join between the singing chorus and the dancers. Occasionally, the pacing could be a little tighter, and the staging of the robbery scene (which, to be fair, is not the show’s best-written moment to begin with) needs revisiting before the production moves on to its runs in London and Paris, but this is, overall, an exceptionally strong staging.

Davies and her company also deserve a lot of credit for not ducking or in any way softening the domestic violence at the heart of the plot. We are no longer living in 1945; today, the scene in which Louise asks Julie if it’s possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt at all reads very, very uncomfortably, and our society’s attitude towards violence towards women has moved on to the degree that it’s impossible not to view that moment through a contemporary filter. We see Billy commit a sin that today is more or less unpardonable – more than once – and then, at the end of the show, we see him get a second chance. In the National Theatre production, when Louise asked that question, Michael Hayden’s Billy mouthed ‘no’. That doesn’t happen here, and there’s no acting around the lines; we simply see in Billy’s face that the question makes him realise what he’s done. The scene is sensitively played, and it’s powerful, but when Julie tells her daughter that yes, it is possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt, it isn’t easy to watch, and nor should it be.

What’s really interesting about this production, though, is watching the audience adjust to receiving a production that is all but unamplified (there is amplification, but it’s so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible). At the beginning of each act, there were three or four minutes in which isolated conversations, I’m afraid, could be clearly heard from various points around the area where I was sitting – and then, by and large, people shut up and listened.

It would be nice to say that there was no bad audience behaviour on display during the performance, but that’s a longer story. Still, this is a spectacular production, and I am, as the song says, mighty glad I came, even given… well, as I said, that’s a longer story.