By Kelly Dean Hansen, Ph.D., Freelance Classical Music Writer, photos by Amanda Tipton

While the world emerges from a global pandemic, the performing arts are, as had been predicted, among the very last and most gradual aspects of life to return to the “normal” routine of 2019.  As the virus continued to rage through the end of 2020, it became clear that optimistic plans for organizations to fully return to that routine in 2021 would likely not be possible, certainly not while in the planning stages.

Central City Opera, which had decided to transfer its planned 2020 season wholesale to 2021, arrived at the solution of staging the two repertory productions as outdoor events at Littleton’s Hudson Gardens.  At the time, as 2020 had taught us all, accurate predictions regarding CDC guidelines and the possibilities of indoor gatherings were impossible, so preparation had to proceed without making such predictions.  Whether it ultimately would have been safe to return to the jewel box opera house in the mountains is therefore a moot point.

Despite all the challenges, CCO’s return on Saturday, July 3 with Carousel, the 1945 musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (their second collaboration, based on the 1909 play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár), was an occasion for celebration.  The Hudson venue is charming enough, with chairs on the grass in front of the tastefully designed stage, the orchestra placed discreetly behind the backdrop.  The stage is directly west of the audience, and the sun is a bit of a nuisance before the show, but it has dropped behind the structure by opening time at 7 p.m.

Of the decisions made to ensure safety and comfort for the outdoor productions, perhaps the most painful one was to abridge the material and eliminate the need for an intermission.  Large cuts in a classic score like Carousel are never anything but unfortunate, but at least in this case, the long dance sequences, such as the heavenly ballet, were right there as an attractive target.  With the reduced cast of fourteen singer/actors, they would not have been effective anyway.  The most famous large crowd scene, the clambake at the beginning of the original Act II, was another obvious opportunity, and it is virtually eliminated.

But to the enormous credit of director Ken Cazan, who is a CCO institution at this point, this is still Carousel, its story of passionate, unbridled love followed by domestic abuse, avoidable tragedy, and ambiguous redemption retained intact.  Yes, much of the music is cut, but all the famous songs with Rodgers’s unforgettable melodies are still there: “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and of course the climactic “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”  Even the eight-minute “Soliloquy” of the show’s central anti-hero Billy Bigelow is sung in its entirety.

Cazan claims to be an advocate of “less is more,” but his last impression on the CCO audience was the sprawling Colorado premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd in 2019, which stretched the Central City stage and pit to their utter limits.  His Carousel, however, gives us an idea of what he means.  The set is sparse, but effective, with particularly imaginative backdrops suggesting the carousel itself.  The clambake is an important pivot point for the plot’s tragic development, but Cazan manages to navigate his way around it so that the robbery gone wrong does not come out of nowhere. 

The true heroism, however, comes from the cast of fourteen, who must bring an epic to an intimate level and convey emotions and events in which they would normally be aided by a substantial chorus.  Baritone Steven LaBrie, making his CCO debut, takes on a huge portion of that task as Billy, and his performance is awe-inspiring.  When the audience arrives on the lawn, LaBrie is already lying down on the stage in front of his virtual carousel, and he is rarely off it after that.

LaBrie imbues Billy with the appropriate level of warmth and charm while still retaining the character’s sinister and flawed aspects.  The “Soliloquy,” sung after the character discovers he will be a father, is riveting, the buildup to its incredibly difficult and operatic climax paced impeccably.

Soprano Anny Christy has given several indelible performances at CCO in recent years, and her casting as the longsuffering Julie Jordan is inspired.  Christy and LaBrie have developed a natural chemistry that shines brilliantly despite the cautiously distanced staging.  The long opening scene where the two characters declare their love requires commitment, and they deliver it, culminating in the timeless duet “If I Loved You.”

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer DeDominici, who attended the University of Colorado-Boulder, has been a familiar face for Colorado audiences for some time.  An excellent singer and actress, she is wonderful as Carrie Pipperidge, whose marriage to the respectable fisherman Enoch Snow is a foil for the tumultuous relationship between Billy and Julie.  DeDominici draws the audience in immediately with the first long solo number of the production, “When I Marry Mister Snow.”

Mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, playing Julie’s cousin Nettie Fowler, is so affecting in her solo performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” sung in the wake of Billy’s suicide, that maintaining a dry eye is a pointless endeavor.  Pancella’s heartfelt rendition of the utterly iconic song makes its reappearance in the closing graduation scene that much more effective.

Tenor Will Ferguson, genial and ingratiating as Enoch, gets a delightful duet with DeDominici called ‘When the Children Are Asleep.”  Bass John Paul Huckle is an appropriately disturbing and villainous Jigger Craigin, and his deep voice resonates well on the outdoor stage.

The other eight cast members include two fine non-singing actors in Judeth Shay Comstock and Charles “Chip” Smith.  The remainder are members of the company’s apprentice and studio artists, of whom Marin Tack stands out as Louise, the daughter of Julie and Billy who gives her dead father a chance at redemption.

Conductor Christopher Zemliauskas, who has in the past proved his mastery with smaller ensembles at Central City, deftly leads his musicians through the score and songs, most impressively in “Soliloquy,” where they lend vital but unobtrusive support to LaBrie.

This may not be the Carousel we would have seen in 2020 without the virus, but it is moving, direct, and powerful.  The venue is easy to access from across the metro area, and as much as the opera house may be missed, the music and the stories have been missed even more.