A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Union Avenue Opera

Yesterday I mentioned to two of my children that we had just seen A little night music. Now they had both memorized most of Sweeney Todd some forty years ago when I was in grade school or college, so I was dismayed to find that none of them knew of this earlier Sondheim masterpiece. What sort of miserable destitute childhood did we give them?!

Among Sondheim’s many masterpieces A little night music (1973) is by far the most irresistibly charming. The Union Avenue Opera opened a very fine production.

The music and lyrics are, of course, by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim. The book is by Hugh Wheeler, whose only other collaboration with Sondheim was to be on Sweeney Todd six years later. Same team, but what a difference!

The story here is based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a summer night. Set in turn-of-the-century Sweden, it deals with the romantic and erotic follies of the Middle Ages. Sondheim has magically set the entire score to waltz rhythm, but with such variety and beauty that one never notices the absence of other time signatures. It’s perfect for the lighthearted, sardonic romance we see unfold during this magical summer night.

The central characters are middle-aged – sophisticated, a little cynical, yearning for lost youth – aware of their own folly, but unable to act otherwise. Fredrik Egerman, a lawyer, is married to the beautiful Anne, who is barely eighteen (and, after almost a year of marriage, she is still a virgin). She loves Fredrik, but like a niece. Frederik is patient.

Fredrik’s son Henrik (by his late first wife) is a moody young seminary student. His worldview is Lutheranism in its heaviest form. Henrik is burdened with a much stronger awareness of life’s sins than of its joys. And his infatuation with his young stepmother is, for him, deeply shameful. (No, we won’t get into Phèdre and Hippolyte.) When Henrik’s mood gets too somber, he seeks relief from grief by sawing through his melancholy cello.

Former great actress Desiree Armfeldt is coming to town. No longer young, she was reduced to criss-crossing the provinces. (Ironically, she still calls it “The Glamorous Life.”) Many years ago, between her two marriages, Fredrik and Desiree had what must have been a pretty glamorous affair. But . . . she broke it.

Other characters we meet are: the insane Count Carl-Magnus, Désirée’s current lover; Charlotte, the Earl’s long-suffering wife; Madame Armfeldt, the mother of Désirée, an old courtesan who was the mistress of kings and archdukes; Fredrika, Desiree’s illegitimate young daughter; and Petra, Anne’s earthy and experienced maid.

Among these variously lonely people, we have six (count them, six!) Romantic Triangles appearing and fading, shifting and resolving. No wonder Sondheim picked three-quarters of the time. Most duets are sung in the third person – such as when Fredrik, in a romantic moment with Désirée, can’t help but sing “You must meet my wife”, or when Fredrik and Count Carl-Magnus sing Désirée in ” It would have been wonderful.”

Baritone Peter Kendall Clark is perfectly cast as Fredrik. Beautiful and with great dignity, he clearly and shamelessly expresses the emotional helplessness of this poor man. He brings a rich, strong voice and impeccable diction to the role.

Debby Lennon’s resume sports a wealth of opera, but here, as Desiree, she also has a chance to develop her skills on Broadway. The show’s chart-topping song is Send the clowns”. Lennon did it! At the circus, when a horrible snafu interrupts the show, the proven solution is: “Send the clowns!” Here, when romantic complications are simply unsolvable, Desiree invokes this old tactic. And we find that she and Fredrik are, indeed, the clowns – comical and tragic.

The very pretty Brooklyn Snow sings Anne. Mrs. Snow sang this superb Cunégonde in Candid here three years ago and returned to sing the heroine roles in Hoffmann’s Tales Last year. This season she sang a charming Nannetta in Falstaff. Now, as Anne, she once again displays that vocal purity and clarity that so deeply impresses me. (Mrs. Snow is just a little pregnant but I have never suspended my disbelief so willingly, so eagerly as here, when she sings the virgin woman.)

Tenor James Stevens sings Henrik, the seminarian’s son. His voice is soft and clear, and he is so convincing in portraying Henrik’s misery and humiliation. No one pays attention to him; they just say “later, Henrik, later”. The poor boy. His sexual attempt with the good Petra is torpedoed by his desire for Anne.

Eric J. McConnell sings the difficult comic role of “tin soldier” of Count Carl-Magnus. It captures the grotesque melodrama of the Earl’s furious jealousy. Good work!

Leann Schuering sings Charlotte, the Earl’s Wife, It’s a beautiful, strong performance, and it almost convinces us that Charlotte’s love for Carl-Magnus justifies her fight for the muzzle. His rendition of the song “Every Day a Little Death” is truly moving.

Madame Armfeldt is sung by Teresa Doggett. Mrs. Doggett has long provided delightful costumes for the Union Avenue Opera (as she now does for night music). But she is also an award-winning actress. And she is a worthy singer, as evidenced above all by her nostalgic mourning for the disappearance of these good old elegant “Liaisons”.

The young Arielle Pederson sings Fredrika, the daughter of Desiree (and Fredrik?). She is charming, innocent and curious. And what a wonderful diction!

Amy Maude Helfer sings Petra, the good (actually horny) earthy one. Brilliantly seductive, she plays with Henrik, then drifts towards Frid, the butler. Late in the show, she nails the cynical solo, “I Will Marry the Miller’s Son.”

Joel Rogier, Gina Malone, Gracce Yukiko Fisher, Philip Touchette and Sarah Price do a very fine job as a sort of Greek chorus, drifting through the show commenting on the night, the people, the relationships.

C. Otis Sweezy designed the lovely decor. Act 1, in and around the Eggerman House, is supported by simple, elegant panels. Act 2, at Armfeldt’s estate, shows stylized trees and a huge sun that never quite sets. (It’s summer night, when Swedes traditionally celebrate all night.) The sun (say the chorus) sets for a moment, then rises. I remembered George and Martha of Albee arguing over the moon. “The moon may very well have gone down,” says George, “but it has come back up.” Whether it’s Walpurgisnacht or Midsummer Night, when these celestial orbs misbehave, it means the human world magically goes awry.

Switching between scenes is remarkably quick and graceful. Congratulations to director Annamaria Pileggi and stage manager Sadie Harvey.

Lighting designer Patrick Huber does his usual splendid job.

Teresa Doggett provides us with the most seductive costumes, precisely adapted to the period.

Founding Artistic Director Scott Schoonover conducts his orchestra in perfect accompaniment to these splendid voices.

Sondheim’s words are truly precious. They are bright, funny and sad. And they often come thick and fast. Often they are buried in busy overlapping counterpoint or racing songs. The acoustics of the Union Avenue church are a little nasty and I found myself working to keep up with the supertitles as the vocals picked up speed. So familiarize yourself with the lyrics if possible before you go. But you have to go, to see A little night music at the Opera on Avenue Union. It is played until August 27.

(Photos by Dan Donovan)

About Madeline J. Carter

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