An Opera North co-production with Leeds Playhouse.
As both composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, throughout an illustrious career, has been much lauded for reinventing the American musical. After so long an absence from the theatre, this splendid remake of A Little Night Music, a co-production of Opera North and West Yorkshire Playhouse under James Brining‘s capable direction, leaves us eternally grateful for a re-acquaintance with a musical of any description.
With an involved plot of romantic musical chairs, A Little Night Music is not an easy show to bring off. All nine named characters in the cast list start out as being most unhappy with their life. Their grievances and frustrations must be aired and then resolved in just two and a half hours. Good acting, from desperate declamation to telling, nuanced glance, is at least as important as a musicality capable of nailing Sondheim’s sometimes angular melody lines and intricate harmonies. Perhaps befitting more its 1973 creation date than its setting in the Sweden of 1900, it is the women who emerge as the more capable of summoning the means to achieve true happiness.
Anne, an innocent teenage trophy bride, a second Mrs. Egerman, has the most growing up to do. She takes the full course of the drama to realise what meaningful love is, not the initial dutiful obligation to her middle-aged husband, Frederik, but those slowly emergent amorous feelings for his son, the 19-year-old Henrik. Corinne Cowling, as Anne, and Quirijn de Lang, as Frederik, chase each other impressively musically in their opening duet, timing absolutely spot on. Laurence Kilsby as the much-derided Henrik, sags a little in pitch at the top of his range, yet achieves a heartbreaking pathos at the close of his opening number. His striking metamorphosis, from sexually callow youth to ardent lover, is perhaps the most impressive of all.
Dame Josephine Barstow, as worldly a Gloriana as ever, commands attention from all assembled, cast and audience alike. Her Madam Armfeldt, like Maggie Smith’s dowager Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey, has all the best one-line, acerbic put-downs and she brandishes a wise, but unashamedly weaponised gentility from the confines of her wheelchair. There is a satisfying warmth to her voice and, coupled to an impeccable diction, she rides effortlessly the lighter orchestration of her solo number. “Liaisons” emerges as a charming, captivating summation of a life well-lived.
Stephanie Corley, as fading starlet Desirée Armfeldt, has to undergo the most reforming about-turns: a dawning realisation that her once-celebrated stage career has now drawn to a close, a reconciliation with her abandoned daughter, Frederika, and a reining in of a shallow promiscuity to a deeper love for Frederik. Musically, this amounts to a gradual transformation from the boastful, adulterous flirtations of “The Glamorous Life” in Act I to luminous poise of Act II’s “Send In The Clowns”. Over the years, I have sensed “Send In The Clowns” getting ever slower and more ponderously sleepy. Ms. Corley gives us a priceless performance, expressive and searching, with plenty of emotional depth without breaking down and speaking it. Dame Judy Dench has shown us how it can be acted and Sarah Vaughan, perhaps, how to treat it to virtuosic vocal variation. Here is a refreshing, buoyant and straightforward rendition and, in the context of Frederik’s presence at her side, those enigmatic lyrics at last begin to make sense.
Top musical plaudits of the night I reserved for Amy J Payne‘s Petra. As the maidservant, her first Act contribution to the plot is a tawdry attempted seduction of young, innocent Henrik, but, in Act II, her one solo venture, “The Miller’s Son”, is a spirited, intelligent proclamation that, artisan or royalty, she will win with whatever hand fateful love cares to deal her.
Far more involved in the action than the usual crowd-scene masses, Sondheim summons a Greek Chorus of five singers to set the stage and vocally comment on the action. As tradition dictates, they are there at the beginning and, with the mortal principals’ lives now irrevocably recast, are the unchanged presence at the close.
Conductor James Holmes provides lively orchestral support to the vocal line, the winds strikingly vivacious when needed – dextrous piccolo to the fore – with idiomatic swung rhythms and a suitably Viennese pulse to the waltz numbers. Contrasting nicely is expressive tender playing from clarinet, bassoon and cor anglais desks. Elsewhere, there is an assuring forthright percussion presence and a warm legato from the strings. Nevertheless, positioned far away in the background shadows, the instrumental sound is never allowed to outgun the voices.
Madeleine Boyd‘s sets are both fittingly ostentatious and cleverly minimalist.
Once more, Opera North spoils us with an outstanding production of a musical, with the same meticulous detailing lavished upon it as any of their specialist operatic ventures.
Enjoy this in reassuring safety. Temperature checks greet you on arrival at the theatre. Staggered admission to the auditorum, two-seat distancing between “social bubbles” is guaranteed and a generous separation of tables for interval drinks provided.
Performance dates: 03, 07, 08, 09, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17 July at Leeds Playhouse.