Lyric Opera/A Little Night Music
By Charlene Baldridge
SDUN Opera Critic
These days two- or three-character musicals are the norm, so it is rare to witness something full-blown. Usually revivals of those that were originally full-blown are mounted with diminished numbers of artists, both on stage and in the orchestra pit.
The New York Times recently called such a practice “chamberization,” particularly in regard to the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 European operetta spoof, “A Little Night Music,” which reduced the orchestra to eight pieces.
The Lyric Opera San Diego production of Sondheim’s rare, amusing and melodic “A Little Night Music,” playing at the Birch North Park Theatre through Feb. 21, uses the original orchestrations, played by 24 musicians conducted by Leon Natker. Sondheim, who turns 80 in March, would be pleased with the sound of brass in the show’s big number, “A Month in the Country.” Suggested by the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” Sondheim wrote music and lyrics and Hugh Wheeler, the book.
Beyond the full orchestration, Lyric Opera’s production has additional virtues both dramatic and musical. Perhaps the smartest thing director J. Sherwood Montgomery did was engage esteemed classical actor Kandis Chappell to portray the aged Mme. Armfeldt. With her presence and her melodic intonation of the woman’s free-spirited life and philosophy (“Liaisons”) Chappell grounds the entire piece. She is perfection.
A middle-aged widower named Fredrik Egerman; his young wife, Anne (still a virgin after nearly a year of wedlock); and his son, Henrik (wildly in love with Anne); spend a weekend at Mme. Armfeldt’s country home. The gathering is engineered by Egerman’s former mistress and Mme. Armfeldt’s daughter, the celebrated actress Désirée Armfeldt, to win Henrik back. Uninvited guests are Désirée’s current lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and his wife, Charlotte. Also present is Désirée’s teenage daughter, Fredrika. An ensemble of five singers narrates like a Greek chorus.
As Désirée, American soprano Andrea Huber, veteran of a European opera career and a resident of Heidelberg who was seen here in the title role of “Countess Maritza,” has just the right amount of sass and road-weariness. She’s ready to settle down with Fredrik, the love of her life. When Désirée’s plans go awry, Huber turns in the best sung, most heartfelt “Send in the Clowns” in memory.
Brilliant of voice, the two baritones – Scott Gregory as Fredrik and Raymond Ayers as Carl-Magnus – are thrilling. In their duet, Caroline Nelms (as Anne) and Shirley Giltner (a fabulous Charlotte) capture the poignancy of the two cheated-upon wives. Vocally and dramatically, Nelms is lightweight elsewhere and her spoken and sung diction is particularly hard to understand. The character of Anne is vapid, as is Robert Boldin’s Henrik. Special mention must be made of the excellent vocalism and diction of Laura Bueno as Fredrik’s maid, Petra, but one can’t help wonder what “I Will Marry the Miller’s Son” has to do with anything other than to underscore the random nature of lust. Would that the ensemble sang on pitch and articulated more throughout (the only negative).
Stephen Terry’s lighting design is dark, though he provides a glimpse of Midsummer Night in Scandinavia. Montgomery’s scenic design, which employs images of birch trees, is lovely and effective. Pam Stompoly-Ericson’s costumes are fine, especially Désirée’s dinner dress. I wish she had provided Fredrick with period underwear and Carl-Magnus’s uniforms the customary kitsch.
The great thrill of this “A Little Night Music,” however, is its overall musicality and the opportunity to hear the full orchestration without synthesizers.
“A Little Night Music” continues
Friday Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday Feb. 21 at 2:30 p.m.
at Birch North Park Theatre
2891 University Ave., North Park
$32-$52 (children 17 and under, half-price)