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Opera inspired by one of Hollywood's greatest stars gets a Houston moment: How about A Little Night Music?

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Houston Grand Opera A Little Night Music March 2014
A scene from A Little Night Music. Photo by Ken Howard

Stephen Sondheim gave a nod to Mozart when he titled A Little Night Music. But it's clear he had Ingmar Bergman on the brain.

Where would Sondheim have been without Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night? Houston Grand Opera audiences have the opportunity to ask themselves this very questions as the company resurrects the 1973 award-winning hit starting with a Friday night performance (the opera runs through March 23).

Bergman was a great master of existential brooding. Crises of faith were as common as breathing in a series of films in which ordinary objects and events seem laden with significance almost too much for anyone to bear.

To be so distinctive is to be vulnerable to parody, and Bergman has been sent up by Mel Brooks' faux-Swedish The Dove:

and by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, the British comedy duo behind the popular television series Absolutely Fabulous:

Sondheim was of course in earnest dialogue with Bergman. Yet adaptation, although the mainstay of ballet and opera, can be tricky. If you know the original work, a different version in a different medium might leave you cold.

Certainly, in spite of an all-star cast of Len Cariou, Diana Rigg and Elizabeth Taylor, Harold Prince's 1977 film adaptation of A Little Night Music lands, for no apparent reason, in a stiff turn-of-the-century Vienna and feels to stilted at times to honor either Sondheim or Bergman.

Also, neither the great Elizabeth Taylor nor the luminous Diana Rigg are really singers though Rigg sings "Every Day a Little Death" with as much gusto as she can manage:

Sondheim's aim was very much to honor Bergman's tragicomedy of time. Smiles of a Summer Night refers to the long and bright night of northern latitudes. We learn from both Bergman and Sondheim of these smiles. As the elderly Madame Armfeldt tells her granddaughter, "The first smiles at the young who know nothing. The second is at the fools who know too little. And the third is at the old who know too much, like me."

In a way, time is out of joint for everyone in A Little Night Music. The middle-aged have learned enough of the world to taste disappointment while the young are bewildered by how cruel and boring life can. Fredrik Egerman lost his wife years before and instead of settling down with his next great love, actress Desiree Armfeldt, he opts for young woman he's known since she was a child. Desiree finds herself the aging mistress to too many, including most recently great soldier and lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, whose young wife resents her husband's wandering eye.

Young Anne Egerman finds herself enamored of her stepson, Henrik, an overly serious cellist and clergyman in the making.

The brilliance of A Little Night Music is to translate this confusion into queasy tones and tempos. Take the marvelous trio sung by Fredrick, Henrik, and Anne. Each begins with a song. Fredrick wishes his virginal wife would make love to him and sings "Now" while Anne anticipates relenting "Soon" and Fredrick laments that he will grow up and be taken seriously only "Later." Finally, the three parts weave together in an extraordinary net of longing and frustration.

Sondheim also picked up on an anxiety in Bergman expressed by the marvelous maid Petra, who in Smiles of a Summer Night dreams of being whisked away by a rich lover. As she settles for a sweet but middle-aged servant of her own class, he explains to her that people such as they are do not have extraordinary lives.

Some of this fear of being ordinary appears as Desiree's daughter Frederika sings "The Glamorous Life" in celebration of the fact the she does not have an "ordinary mother."

Disappointment reigns in the world of Bergman, and yet no one seems to mind. For Sondheim, a great anthem of disappointment became one of his best known songs, "Send in the Clowns." Just as Desiree and Fredrik think they can reunite, everything suddenly seems futile, making Desiree marvel about "losing my timing this late in my career."

Houston Grand Opera's production plumbs the depth of disappointment with a cast full of former HGO studio artists, including conductor Eric Melear, Chad Shelton as Fredrik, Mark Diamond as Count Carl-Magnus and Alicia Gianni as Petra. HGO veterans Elizabeth Futral and Joyce Castle play Desiree and Madame Armfeldt respectively while Brenton Ryan makes his HGO debut in the part of Henrik.

And yet all ends well as lovers sort into age-appropriate couples. The young Anne and Henrik elope, the Count reconciles with his wife and Desiree and Fredrik reunite after 14 years of longing.

Clowns and fools we may be in love because young makes children of us all. Maybe Fredrik puts it best when he says "I'm afraid being young in this world is a bit ridiculous."

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