Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Little Night Music

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is probably the strangest production of that show that I’ve ever seen. Isaac Mizrahi is the director and also designed the sets and costumes. In the trailer for the production, he says that the year he first saw A Little Night Music he was also working on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and they got muddled in his mind. So when asked to do this production he went with the muddle. And it worked. Although it is really hard to explain.

Act I takes place in three locations: at the town home of a lawyer and his wife, at a theater and at the home of a dragoon and his wife. Act II takes place at a country home. But this production takes place in the woods. The floor is covered with grass, there are trees in which people sit, and furniture is moved in and out to suggest inside locations. The chorus (a quintet) who are usually dressed as servants or other household supernumeraries are, in this production, dressed in odd little costumes that look like, but aren’t quite, underwear. And they have little puck-like wings on their backs. Strange. But it worked! The set production was delightful. It might have been better on a stage that revolved because moving all the furniture in and out was cumbersome. But it never took too long, and we usually got to listen to the quintet sing (and flit around in the trees) while things were being moved.

The main characters are still the main characters and they do nothing strange with their performances. Fredrik Egerman is married to his very young, very beautiful second wife, Anne. Who is still a virgin after 11 months of marriage. Who is also the object of desire of Fredrik’s son Henrik. Fredrik and Anne attend a theatre performance starring Desiree Armfeld who, it turns out, is Fredrik’s old flame. There are still sparks between Desiree and Fredrik but she is involved with a married dragoon who has an abused wife, Charlotte, who loves and hates him. Desiree thinks maybe she’s at a point in her life where she should settle down. Maybe she shouldn’t have let Fredrik go all those years ago. So she engineers a weekend at her mother’s country estate to see what will happen. I won’t go into everything that happens.

There was nothing odd about the performance of any of these roles. What was odd, however, was the combination of actors and singers. I know, you’re thinking, there are always combinations of actors and singers in musicals. Yes. But not in operas. Not generally. In operas everyone is a singer and we live in hope that they can also act. And we don’t notice too much when they can’t. But here we had an opera production starring … Amy Irving – yes, the movie star and broadway actress Amy Irving who sings in the production but isn’t, herself, a singer. Surrounded by opera singers. So it was all just slightly … out of balance. But not enough to spoil my enjoyment of the evening.

Amy Irving was a low-key but completely believable Desiree Armfeld and Send in the Clowns doesn’t really depend on vocal abilities anyway, it depends on an actress who can carry off the pathos. Sian Phillips, another actress who is not an opera singer, played Mdm. Amfeld with just the right acerbic note. But since this was an opera production it was very noticeable that they each could do no more than carry a tune, whereas in a “normal” production of this show it might not have been so noticeable.

Christopher Herbert, an opera singer who can act, was however, a very believable Fredrik Egerman, with a delightful full voice. His duet with tenor Lee Gregory (another opera singer who can act), as the dragoon Carl-Magnus Malcom, was a highlight of Act II. Herbert and Amy Irving had enough chemistry to make their relationship work for the audience. Gregory was good enough with comedy to make Carl-Magnus a comic terror.

Amanda Squitieri (playing Anne Egerman) and Erin Holland (playing Charlotte Malcom) had beautiful voices and their duet in Act I was a highlight. Both were decent enough actresses that in an ordinary opera production I might be complimenting their acting performances. But here, in comparison with the acting of Irving and Phillips, they were merely adequate. Squitieri seemed a little too old to be a believable Anne (and seemed to be robbing the cradle with Henrik) and Holland wasn’t a good enough actress to blend the pathos and comedy of the role of Charlotte. She mostly just seemed cranky. But it didn’t really matter because there is so much going on in this show that their scenes would sweep into the next scene before their acting could slow down the performance.

From an opera perspective, the quintet of supernumeraries was the best part of the production. They are part of Opera Theatre’s young artist program and they were delightful.

The only thing I really didn’t like about the show was that it was miked.

Really. That was the only thing I really didn’t like. At the end we all said to each other … I liked that!

Then we added … but I hope they got this out of their system and don’t do anything like it again.

It’s hard to explain why. I did like it. Really. I’m glad they tried it. I’m glad I saw it. It’s just that I’ve seen better productions of A Little Night Music. In fact, I saw a production of A Little Night Music on the exact same stage ten years ago done by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis that was the best production I’ve ever seen. Maybe that affected my perspective.

But also, it just wasn’t a show that lent itself well to opera.

It isn’t that I don’t think opera companies can’t or shouldn’t do musical productions. I just think this particular show isn’t a good choice because the character who is the linchpin of the entire plot is required to be an actress first and foremost and doesn’t necessarily need to be able to sing well. As I said, it threw the production out of balance.

Maybe they could try Carousel. Or Phantom of the Opera. Or even Sweeney Todd. If they really want to do musical comedy.

But … and yes here is where I’m going to whine. Just a little bit. Opera season is very short. There are only four productions a year. Five miles away, across the city, in the middle of Forest Park, is an outdoor ampitheatre where The Municipal Opera Association (the MUNY) puts on an entire summer of musical comedies. And during the fall, winter and spring months, the FOX brings in touring companies doing … musical comedies. Wicked is playing right now. And the Rep always does at least one musical. As does The Black Rep.

I love musical comedy. It sends me out humming and singing. This production of A Little Night Music sent me out humming and singing. But it isn’t as if there is a dearth of musical comedy in St. Louis . There is no musical comedy void that needs to be filled.

So maybe OTSL should stick with what they do best – opera. Because there is not nearly enough opera in St. Louis.

Here is the trailer for a taste.