Regional Reviews: Phoenix
A Little Night Music
Sondheim and Wheeler based their musical on Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night, and the plot, which is set in 1900s Sweden, interweaves the follies and foibles of the various aspects of love between two married couples and the woman who comes between them. When Frederick Egerman, a middle-aged lawyer who was widowed but is now recently married to the 18-year-old Anne, who is still a virgin, runs into the semi-famous stage actress Desirée Armfeldt, with whom he had a romance 14 years ago, it fans the flames of their former affair. The only problem is that Desirée is currently having an affair with the incredibly pompous and jealous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, whose wife Charlotte knows all about her husband's infidelities but chooses to look the other way. When they all meet up at that chateau of Desirée's mother, the all-knowing Madame Armfeldt, for a weekend in the country, the comical plotlines merge together along with the addition of Frederick's theological student son Henrik, Desirée's 13-year-old daughter Fredrika, and Anne's maid, the impetuous Petra. There is also a quintet who comment on the action.
Sondheim's score is composed almost entirely in 3/4 time and features a wide range of song structures and styles. These include the complicated trio of "Now/Later/Soon," which takes three solo songs and intertwines them together at the end into one, with the sharpness of the counterpoint being extremely rewarding, and what I believe is one of the best act one closing songs ever written, "A Weekend in the Country," as it manages to involve and interweave the entire cast while pushing the plot and actions of all of the characters forward. There is also Sondheim's most well-known song, the simple "Send in the Clowns," which features some of his best lyrics of regret and the pain of truthfully understanding a romance won't work. Sondheim's lyrics throughout are witty and wise, with some of his most intricate, and humorous, rhyme schemes. Wheeler's book manages to perfectly flesh out the characters and their relationships with each other while also slightly foreshadowing their actions.
The Arizona Opera production uses the sets and costumes of the Isaac Mizrahi designed and directed production which premiered at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2010. Mizrahi's designs set the entire show in a whimsical forest where fairies and sprites roam around, comment on the action, and occasionally move scenery. The setting is reminiscent of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and having the quintet dressed in Victorian undergarments with fairy wings, and occasionally perched up in the trees while eavesdropping on the conversations, works very well, as if they are the lovers and fairies from that Shakespeare comedy directing the romantic comings and goings in the show. Mizrahi's appealing set design features a lush, grass floor, large trees, colorful flowers, and only a few set pieces, including a door, bed, dressing table and sofa, which are whisked on and off stage to quickly change the location. His costumes are sublime, with beautifully embellished gowns for the women.
The cast, under Keturah Stickann's sure-footed direction, deliver nuanced and winning three-dimensional performances. The entire cast have vast operatic credits but are equally at home in the world of musical theatre. Patricia Racette is perfect as Desirée. She is radiant as a woman who is trying to change her past and present ways by rekindling the flames with Frederick and hoping for a future with him and her daughter as a family. Racette's rich vocal abilities deliver a warm and moving "Send in the Clowns." As Frederick, Keith Phares manages to breathe life into what can sometimes be a stoic and somewhat passive role. His singing is bright and beautifully nuanced. Racette and Phares both have solid stage presence and create a couple you want to see succeed, even as obstacle after obstacle are put in their way. Jill Grove is superb as Madame Armfeldt, with a sharp delivery of the character's biting quips, getting laughs through her comic timing and skilled ability to toss out curt bons mots with ease.
As Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and his wife Charlotte, Brandon Morales and Beth Clayton make a winning twosome. Morales' gorgeous singing voice and Clayton's spot-on comical line delivery and biting facial expressions make for a perfectly mismatched married couple. Katrina Galka is lovely as the somewhat dim-witted and naïve Anne, and Terrence Chin-Loy delivers one of the best portrayals I've seen of Henrik, with superb vocal abilities and an astute understanding of this sexually frustrated and confused young man. Melanie Long is fun as the brash maid Petra; her performance of "The Miller's Son" is glorious. As Fredrika, Brooklyn Snow is quite fetching, and Thomas Strawser is good in the small part of Madame Armfeldt's servant Frid. Forming the quintet, Grace Kahl, Caitlin Gotimer, Mack Wolz, Aaron Smith, and Rob McGinness are exceptional.
Andrew Bisantz does a superb job conducting the large and excellent orchestra. Gregory Hirsch's lighting creates beautiful stage images, especially during the night-time scenes when a deep purple background glows. The sound design by Joshua Reid ensures every musical note, lyric, and line of dialogue is clear and crisp.
A Little Night Music at Arizona Opera is an elegant and sumptuous production of this sophisticated, classic musical.
After a weekend at Symphony Hall in Phoenix, Arizona Opera's A Little Night Music runs through March 13, 2022, at the Tucson Music Hall, 260 S Church Ave, Tucson AZ. For tickets and information, please visit https://azopera.org
Conductor: Andrew Bisantz
Desirée Armfeldt: Patricia Racette