New York Arts, Lloyd Schwartz
The title A Little Night Music is only the first of the many inspired elements of Stephen Sondheim’s inspired 1973 musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (or, more correctly translated, I’m told, Smiles of the Summer Night—i.e., the night of the summer solstice). Of course it calls up both Bergman’s most subtle comedy as well as Mozart’s most famous serenade. And although Sondheim’s stream of waltzes and other triple-meter dances more directly evolves from Viennese operetta than Viennese opera, there’s a consistent Mozartian elegance and chiaroscuro to this work. The high water mark of Sondheim’s career was probably in the 1970s, the decade of Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), all collaborations with director Hal Prince. Everything that followed was more problematic, although many admirers would add Into the Woods (1987) to this list, and I’d also include the moving Passion (1994). Sondheim himself regards his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (1984) as his best work.
The quality I most admire in my favorite Sondheim musicals is what some critics have called pastiche—the way Sondheim uses traditional musical forms: vaudeville and musical-comedy, with its song-and-dance tunes and torch songs, in Company and Follies; Japanese folk songs, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Offenbach in Pacific Overtures; British music hall in Sweeney Todd;and of course operetta in Night Music. But what in some hands would be simple parody in Sondheim is transformation, creating something entirely new and personal out of those traditions, injecting those traditional elements with a radical new freshness, urgency, and depth. And in no show has Sondheim achieved more musical cohesiveness than A Little Night Music. With its themes of human folly (Follies is another great Sondheim double-entendre of a title), marital betrayals and forgivenesses, of a life force that emerges from an acknowledgement of death (“Every Day a Little Death” is one of the most trenchant songs in the show), A Little Night Music might well be Sondheim’s Marriage of Figaro.
Given the history of Mozart and Strauss operas at Emmanuel Music under its late founding director Craig Smith, it’s not so far-fetched that Emmanuel’s current director Ryan Turner would turn to A Little Night Music for its first attempt at a Broadway musical. It was imaginatively staged by mezzo soprano (and now cantor) Lynn Torgove on a series of platforms (with no conventional scenery and the orchestra on stage) at the Boston Conservatory Theatre. Torgove also played one of the two central characters, the actress Désirée Armfeldt (who sings what Sondheim once referred to as a “medley of my greatest hits: ‘Send in the Clowns’”). Baritone David Kravitz was Désirée’s former lover, the lawyer Fredrik Egerman, whose 18-year-old second wife, Anne, after 11 months of marriage, is still a virgin. “That’s monstrous!” Désirée exclaims when Fredrik confides in her “You Must Meet My Wife”). At the first of the two performances, it took both Torgove and Kravitz a little while to settle into their complex roles (she a bit broad at first, he a bit unfocused), but soon they were both completely believable in their mutual affection and deeply affecting in their reconciliation and bemused resignation. Torgove’s “Send in the Clowns” (singing “Losing my timing this late in my career” with a poignantly ironic spin on “career”) and their final duet (She: “Was that a farce?” He: “My fault, I fear.” She: “Me as a merry-go-round.” He: “Me as King Lear”) were, as they had to be, the emotional high points of the evening.
As Désirée’s ancient, worldly-wise mother (the role created by the legendary Hermione Gingold), with her checkered past and singing of her lucrative “Liaisons” with upper-echelon royalty from whom she “acquired some position / Plus a tiny Titian,” veteran Boston actress Bobbie Steinbach (pretty legendary herself around these parts) gave the most thoroughly secure and consistently articulate performance, her dramatic concentration, rich voice (both speaking and singing), and impeccable diction a model for everyone in the company.
Two technical challenges affected various aspects of the production, sometimes seriously. The biggest problem for the cast was probably that the orchestra was on stage with them and not in a pit. And the different levels and locations of the platforms made for inconsistent acoustics. So even though Turner succeeded in keeping the orchestra’s volume levels down and the tempos slow enough for the singers to articulate Sondheim’s intricate patter (we sometimes forget that he got his Broadway start writing only lyrics—for West Side Story and Gypsy), much of the speaking and singing from the upstage platforms was close to inaudible. Too many of the rapid-fire internal rhymes and complex alliteration (“It’s a very short road / From the pinch and the punch / To the paunch and the pouch / and the pension”) got lost, sometimes because the singers simply weren’t loud enough, often because their enunciation also lacked bite. At least we must be grateful that their voices weren’t artificially amplified. But one of the great pleasures of a Sondheim musical was frustratingly lacking. If you were familiar with the lyrics, you might fill in what you couldn’t hear; if they were new to you, you were largely out of luck.
Still, there were many pleasures. Besides Torgove, Kravitz, and Steinbach, there were Dana Whiteside as Count Carl-Magnus (a pun on Cro-Magnon?), Désirée’s belligerent, jealous, pea-brained paramour; glamorous Krista River as his miserable, mistreated-yet-devoted wife (“Every day a little death”); and Jonas Budris as Egerman’s unhappy son Henrik, a stumbling divinity student desperately but silently in love with his young step-mother. These artists combined strong vocal performances with convincing acting. One disappointment was the usually appealing, silvery-voiced Kristen Watson as Anne, who couldn’t be heard in crucial passages—especially in her self-defining section of Sondheim’s rhythmically and verbally contrapuntal “Now/Soon/Later” trio where she tries to rationalize her sexual inhibition by singing to her napping husband: “If I were perfect for you / Wouldn’t you tire of me?” Watson never quite got under the skin of this only superficially superficial character.
It was a sweet gesture to have two students from the Boston Conservatory’s outstanding music-theater program in important roles. Kellie McKay had the right brassy timbre for Petra, the sexy maid who revels in “what passes by.” But she lacked the projection and precision of diction for her climactic song, “The Miller’s Son” (“The pinch and the punch / To the paunch and the pouch”), and what needed to be the loudest, most celebratory song in the show was too small to make its necessary effect. Grayson Mills had some nice moments in the mainly speaking role of Désirée’s daughter, Fredrika.
One of Sondheim and Prince’s most inspired ideas for A Little Night Music was to use a vocal quintet (called the “Liebeslieder Quintet”) as a kind of Greek chorus, introducing and commenting on the action, and Sondheim gave them some of the prettiest waltzes in the score. Torgove had them enter waltzing on their separate platforms. The outstanding singers were sopranos Jayne West and Sonja Tengblad, mezzo-soprano Majie Zeller, tenor Matthew Anderson, and baritone Sumner Thompson.
With Jonathan Tunick’s insinuating, almost Mahlerian delicacy of orchestration, A Little Night Music is a wonderful vehicle for an orchestra, and here Emmanuel Music excelled. Ryan Turner led a lilting performance, with a full orchestral complement (not the increasingly typical reduction), which included such splendid players as concertmaster Danielle Maddon, Rane Moore on clarinet, Jane Harrison on oboe and English horn, Martha Moor on harp, and Michael Beattie on piano and celeste (I could go on). In the “Now/Soon/Later” trio, when Henrik accompanies himself on the cello, the lavishly beautiful cello sound was actually produced by master cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer.
Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR's Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of three poetry collections and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and, most recently, The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.