Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Director: James Brining
Perhaps the most ambivalent of Sondheim’s shows, A Little Night Music is both complex and sophisticated. The show is loosely based on Ingrid Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and is presented here by Opera North in collaboration with Leeds Playhouse. Written in 1973 this classical musical has an almost paradoxical operetta feel to it and is somewhat lighter than many of Sondheim’s other works.
This particular offering, brimming with arias and recitatives, is backed by a 25-strong live orchestra. The company’s vocal abilities are delivered with gusto and flair. On occasions, however, it becomes a perfect example of style over substance. The book, written by Hugh Wheeler, is heavy and, as an opera company, it is clear that the focus of this particular production is on the music. Where it falls flat is in the lengthy acting scenes which require a little more grit and determination. There are some interesting moments in the staging as the players lurk upstage keeping an eye on the action – a particularly subtle touch which brings an air of enigma and mystery. The ensemble are also responsible for shifting props around the vast thrust and open space in the many quick scene changes.
From a performance point of view the characters need further development. Desiree, played by Sandra Piques Eddy, for example lacks any real sense of cynicism and playful sarcasm – ironic given that Desiree is an actress. Her vocals are strong but lack any real feeling of emotion making the part disjointed and uneven.
In contrast, Dame Josephine Barstow gives us a wonderful rendition of Liasons in her role as Madame Armfeldt. A true masterclass in Sondheim delivery, subtly acting-through-song with a real commitment to the art form.
A Weekend in the Country is always a strong act 1 finale, perfectly setting the scene for things to come in the second half. Harmonies were tight and, as the first half closes, the Opera North company pack a real punch when they sing collectively.
Act 2 plays out around the grand fountain of the Armfeldt estate. The setting for the action is particularly impressive. As act 2 gathers momentum Sondheim has a brilliant way of tying together his tunes during the many reprises, ensemble work and quintets. Act 2 also features the subtle show stopper Send In The Clowns. One could argue that the greatest achievement in this show is the lesser known song, The Miller’s Son, which is packed with punchy alliteration and deftly delivered here by Amy J Payne – the performance of the night!
Both Opera North and Leeds Playhouse offer this particular production to the memory of a genius. We sadly lost Sondheim back in November 2021 but his musicals most certainly live on. Though not the finest production of a Sondheim classic you’ll see A Little Night Music is still worth a watch given the delicate and dulcet vocals of its cast and impressive orchestrations under the musical supervision of James Holmes.