Now, as the sweet imbecilities tumble so lavishly onto her lap!
Would, oh would that I had written such a line! It’s funny, it’s elegant, it’s a bit mysterious, and it is certainly meant to be sung, especially with the particular musical emphasis composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim gave to the first and last syllables. It is one of hundreds of such perfectly-placed phrases throughout his landmark piece A Little Night Music.
Houston Grand Opera has scored a sure hit with this brilliant production, first created by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Isaac Mizrahi’s lavish set and costume designs merge with Brian Nason’s Maxfield Parrish-inspired lighting to provide a sumptuous escape from the banalities of contemporary life. It is mostly well-cast, with particularly strong performances from tenor Brenton Ryan, mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, and soprano Alicia Gianni.
Isaac Mizrahi’s lavish set and costume designs merge with Brian Nason’s Maxfield Parrish-inspired lighting to provide a sumptuous escape from the banalities of contemporary life.
A Little Night Music was hugely popular in the 1970s, when it had strong followings in both New York and London. So why has it been nearly forgotten?
One could speculate that this masterpiece is rarely performed because it is fiendishly difficult to sing, and it requires a large and talented cast, not to mention a well-seasoned orchestra.
The ensemble sections are dense and complicated. Following a gorgeous vocal-infused overture, in the first act Sondheim offers three solos on temporality, namely “Now,” “Later” and “Soon,” and then combines all of them into a dazzling trio. He makes it known, early on, that this will be a kind of “thinking” piece, even if it is also a comedy.
This seemingly Broadway musical also merges a wide variety of material that could be off-putting to the average viewer. If I had to assemble a “mood board” of Sondheim’s influences, it would of course include Ingmar Berman’s wonderful comic 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, but also Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer Opus 52 and 65, Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, Mozart (in general, and his famous G major Serenade of the same name in particular), Viennese light opera, and on and on.
I would add Woody Allen’s Love and Death, but that was made in 1975, suggesting that perhaps Allen was influenced by Sondheim. Certainly he owed a debt to Sondheim with his 1982 film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.
Added to all of this is an appealing musical structure that reflects the idea of a love triangle: all of the music is composed in triple meters. This is sophisticated, even a little weird.
Musical or opera?
Is it a musical or an opera? I would have to say, after thinking about it for nearly 40 years, that I’m not quite sure. My only complaint of HGO’s production is that some of the singing was overly operatic. This work, musically, is a bit of a paradox. The songs require an experienced vocalist but also demand a light touch. They have to be a little “off the cuff” rather than heavily asserted. They are technical but fleeting.
Subsequently, with her thrilling rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” Alicia Gianni as Petra stole the highpointof the second act fromFutral.
Take a brilliant song such as “Send in the Clowns,” for example. Glynis Johns, in the 1973 original Broadway cast, wasn’t much of a singer. Her version of the classic was almost a form of Sprechstimme. She half spoke, half sang, and she could break your heart by the finish. Here Elizabeth Futral approaches it more as if it is an aria. Really, it is a long rumination, a self-reflexive theatrical moment imbued with both anguish and reminiscence. Futral is a competent Desirée, but not a complex one.
Subsequently, with her thrilling rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” Alicia Gianni as Petra stole the highpoint of the second act from Futral. It’s a weird song celebrating lustiness, experience, and adventure, and Gianni finished her emphatic phrases with long, non-vibrato belting. She was absolutely thrilling in every respect.
Hugh Wheeler’s thoughtful narrative juxtaposes young lovers looking ahead with older couples dreamily commenting on how great “it” used to be. I have always thought the lilting and fragmentary “leitmotif” of Madame Armfeldt, the eldest character (“Liaisons”), to have a certain gay/drag-queen subtext. Joyce Castle was particularly intriguing as she delivered the song while seemingly falling asleep. Her scenes with the talented young singer Grace Muir as Frederika are charming and memorable.
Conductor Eric Melear gave Sondheim’s elegant score exactly the right touch, making this nearly three-hour performance a joy. Young tenor Brenton Ryan has made a stunning HGO debut as the dreamy idealist Henrik Egerman. It is perhaps the trickiest role to bring off, and that’s saying a lot when it comes to A Little Night Music, which is filled with tricky roles. Ryan is, however, the most dynamic actor in this cast, and that’s saying a lot as well. Let’s hope that HGO invites him back for an even weightier role next season.
The Houston Grand Opera production of A Little Night Music continues through March 23.