S1973 by tephen Sondheim The show, based on a film by Ingmar Bergman about sexual intrigue in a Swedish summer without twilight, includes a joke about bad opera singing. Former lovers remember: “The tenor on the boat we chartered / belched The Bartered Bride.” Paradoxically, this disparagement is sung with impeccable pitch and utterance, in Opera North’s co-production with Leeds Playhouse, a cultural case of Leeds United.
As Sondheim’s most operetta show, A Little Night Music has been (along with the most lyrical Sweeney Todd) proof that Sondheim is marrying Broadway and opera. (The first three covers of Night Music in New York were lyrical, not theatrical.)
James Brining’s production – on a set by Madeleine Boyd that uses an ornamental fountain for comedic and concealing effect – confirms that such hybrid stagings trade musical gain for dramatic loss, and more with this spectacle.
Sondheim, in his memoir Finishing the Hat, explains that some songs were written within the confines of erratically melodious actors. Send in the Clowns’ short, conversational sentences negotiated the “inability to sustain a note” of Glynis Johns, who created the role of actor Desiree, while Semi-Recitative Liaisons, his mother’s erotic catalog, Madame Armfeldt, is also intentionally kind to intermittent singers.
In this staging, soprano Stephanie Corley could sing the Clowns ensemble with one breath if needed, while Grand Dame Josephine Barstow, as the elder woman, could stretch her voice more surprisingly than requested. The sound is beautifully pure, but the big solos are more like arias than the dramatic soliloquies that they are in their entirety.
Another challenge is that this show has long Ibsenite dialogue scenes (by playwright Hugh Wheeler). Barstow hits every punchline, and Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang, as attorney Fredrik, is equally enjoyable in the speech and conversational song It Would Have Been Wonderful (a rare example of someone who wishes their lover had look hideous). Some cast members, however, tend to talk about a single note.
The musical’s first producer, Hal Prince, called it “whipped cream with knives”. Leeds’ version is a delicious, sweet treat that will delight audiences after the long pandemic cultural famine, and the twisted, witty lyrics will rarely ring so clearly. But it lacks the psychological benefit of Trevor Nunn’s 2008 production of chocolate factory Menier, perhaps because Sondheim writes naturally for singer actors rather than acting singers.