A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim
Michigan Opera Theatre
21st November, 2009
Is this thing on?
Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is one of those enigmatic theatrical works that has a proverbial foot in the door of both the operatic and musical theater worlds. Sondheim’s works have historically been the domain of musical theatre, but opera companies have started to take a closer look. Many of his works are clearly dominated by the ‘belt’ style of singing, but there are several, including A Little Night Music, that are scored for classically trained voices.
The classical world’s growing interest in Sondheim’s work begs the question: what makes an opera? A quick answer might be that an opera is through-composed and without spoken dialogue. This definition, observed strictly, would exclude such well-loved works as Der Freischütz, Fidelio, and Die Zauberflöte. It seems in our modern view of opera the quality of the composition has a great deal to do with our definition. Night Music, although inclusive of a few roles clearly intended for the traditional musical theater voice, features demanding vocal ranges, subtle motivic continuity, and rich, intricate orchestrations. In short, it has all the makings of an opera.
It is therefore no wonder why Michigan Opera Theatre chose to produce this work in its current season. However, rather than presenting a realization of the score with all the care and detail normally given to an opera, MOT instead presented a middling Night Music that featured some of the best and worst traits of both musical theater and opera. Dona D. Vaughn’s staging featured the quick vignettes and sparse, moving set pieces usually associated with the show. This traditional staging was effective in Act II when, much like the final act of Le Nozze di Figaro, lovers and suitors are popping in and out of sight, chasing each other around the grounds of the estate. As a whole, though, the staging came off rather flat and disjointed, particularly with the use of the Liebeslieder quintet.
Acting as a combination of narrators, observers, and participants, the Liebeslieder quintet is used, among other things, to set the atmosphere and provide a distraction for set changes. This quintet, comprised entirely of trained voices, resulted in a full, robust sound. The physicality varied from singer to singer however, giving the impression that they were not all part of the same world. Soprano Juliet Petrus exemplified the aesthetic required for the quintet. As Mrs. Nordstrom, Petrus featured a clear, gorgeous, vocal presence, and a graceful physicality perfect for the waltz featured so prominently in this work.
One of the most compelling aspects of this show is that perspectives of love and lust are presented from characters ranging from the adolescent Frederika to the aged Madame Armfeldt, sung by Bobbie Steinbach. As Armfeldt, Steinbach gave a touching performance in which the character’s confinement to a wheelchair did not inhibit a crisp, nuanced interpretation. Less concise, but always engaged, was Leslie Uggams as Armfeldt’s daughter, Desirée. One of the central protagonists, Uggams seemed content to let the action revolve around her. This interpretation lacked presence in the first act but proved effective in her rendition of the celebrated ‘Send in the Clowns.’ In this moving take on the well-known song, Uggams was virtually frozen as her character’s lover slowly acquiesced to the charms, real or imagined, of his young bride. Uggams’ was not for a second indulgent or self-pitying as the jilted lover, nor did she fall into the trap of an overly affected vocal interpretation.
As Frederik Egerman, Desirée’s former and present lover, Ron Raines tread wonderfully the line between guarded masculinity and vulnerability. Raines’ sang powerfully and beautifully with his warm baritone, and he adorned his character with emotional and psychological diversity. Even as a character whose central aim is sexual gratification, marital or not, Raines’ Frederik was the hero of the evening, with the audience on his side from the get-go.
Jennifer Giudice’s Anne Egerman, Frederick’s young bride, was inoffensive and by the book; sung with a series of technical checkmarks, but ultimately limited. Similarly, Anne’s ultimate love interest, the troubled Henrik, sung by Kevin Thomas Campbell, was unmatched vocally with the rest of the cast. In a challenging role, Campbell’s Henrik was all bark, with no emotional bite, and never engendered much sympathy.
As Count and Countess Malcolm, Edward Watts and Lisa Vroman brought the greatest sheer physical energy and vitality of all the principal singers. In a role where the viral, boorish ‘man’s man’ is exploited to comic effect, Watts physical and vocal presence was formidable. Vroman capitalized on the traditional musical theatre approach to her Charlotte. Constantly aware of the line of her neck or hem, she took full use of the stage and brought to the production a dancer’s awareness; her character’s emotional state always clearly legible on her open, expressive face.
In one of the few roles clearly written for the musical theater ‘belt’ voice, Lindsay Rider’s Petra was another standout. The character remains peripheral until the second act, when, after a tryst with the butler, Petra explodes with her sexual credo, “The Miller’s Son,” one of the high points of the evening. Rider’s Petra stood out in her pragmatic and uncomplicated approach to her sexuality, and she commanded the stage with her unbridled, powerful, vocal interpretation.
Across the board, unfortunately, the fine performances were unfairly ruined by the shockingly poor sound design. Apart from the homogenization of the wonderfully diverse voices, the evening was riddled with microphones popping, cracking, coming on and off at inopportune times, and a general destruction of diction. Many, many words fell victim to the microphones - a shame, considering how ideas expressed verbally are such an important aspect of any Sondheim production. Rather than giving actors freedom to speak in a more naturalistic tone, the microphones amplified dialogue that most likely would have been heard perfectly well without mechanical assistance. This resulted in most of the spoken dialogue having an awkward feeling of largess and oration. Similarly, the orchestra was drowned out by the sound system. Serving primarily as underscoring, the orchestra never truly came to life.
Curiously, the moments when the microphones cut out entirely were refreshing. In these too-frequent moments, the color of the voices came through and for a moment the veil was lifted, the audience was brought into the rare, unamplified auditory world that is the treasure of opera-goers; a glimpse of what could (and perhaps should) have been. What makes an opera? The answer is still debatable but it seems the moral of this production is: if it’s in an opera house, let them sing.
Bottom line: Microphones: 1, Audience: 0
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Conductor - Suzanne Mallare Acton
Director - Dona D. Vaughn
Emmeline Mosher: Kristin Sampson
Desirée - Leslie Uggams
Fredrik - Ron Raines
Anne - Jennifer Giudice
Madame Armfeldt - Bobbie Steinbach
Henrik - Kevin Thomas Campbell
Countess - Lisa Vroman
Count - Edward Watts
Frid - Brian Thibault
Mrs. Anderssen - Alta Marie Girouard
Mrs. Nordstrom - Juliet Petrus
Petra - Lindsay Rider
Mrs. Segstrom - Alexa Lokensgard
Mr. Lindquist - Andrew Gray
Mr. Erlanson - Benjamin Robinson
Frederika - Maggie Malaney