Syracuse Opera’s ‘A Little Night Music’ a little too lean
With a pit orchestra of only six players and no projected titles, Sondheim’s “operetta” doesn’t seem whole
There’s little point in arguing whether Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is, at its core, a musical or an operetta. It could be either, depending on the resources put into the production effort. Syracuse Opera chose to trumpet the work as “operetta,” not musical theater, during the weeks leading up to Friday’s premiere. And that label calls into question the company’s use of a chamber-sized pit orchestra.
“The score is operatic in scope,” company artistic director Douglas Kinney Frost opined in an interview published Jan. 26 in the Syracuse New Times. I wish he would have gone on to explain how an instrumental ensemble of just six players can do justice to an “operatic score.”
When A Little Night Music opened on Broadway in 1973, the score (orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick) called for a large orchestra comprising a string section, three horns, two trumpets, trombone, five doubling reed parts and harp. Today, it’s not uncommon for opera companies to pare down the size of that orchestra to somewhere around 20 players. The 2010 Broadway revival at the Walter Kerr Theater used fewer than 10 players — but that “on-the-cheap” version was never touted as anything other than musical theater. The term “operetta,” for most listeners, would suggest a sufficient number of instruments to generate a variety of orchestral colors.
The present Syracuse Opera production uses three strings, clarinet, percussion and piano. That’s a sextet. The chamber quality of these instruments worked sufficiently well during the more delicate moments such as in the ballad Send in the Clowns, delivered with deep sensitivity by Sarah Heltzel and accompanied exquisitely by the sinuous legato of clarinetist Victoria Krukowski. More often, however, the bare-bones arrangement produced a thinness of texture that took its toll on the splashy musical numbers, robbing Petra’s showstopping The Miller’s Son of its pizazz and squelching the lavish, Vegas-like Act One ensemble finale, A Weekend in the Country. Given the hype, I would have expected more.
Beyond the music, A Little Night Music is celebrated for its clever and witty lyrics — which are simply too precious to pass over the listener’s head. Though the Syracuse Opera webpage indicates the production is to be “sung in English with projected titles,” it was clear at the Friday premiere that this was not the case. When I asked one of the company’s principals at the intermission about the absence of titles, I was told that plans had changed. That’s a pity, because the absence of projected titles in this acoustic production renders it difficult to appreciate Sondheim’s gifts as a wordsmith par excellence.
His play on words goes rather deep in this work. For example, Sondheim affords greater “rhyme” to those characters exhibiting a high degree of intelligence. That’s pretty much true of all his musicals. Here, the successful lawyer Frederik gets the most rhyme (as can be heard in the patter song, Now), while his teen bride Anne and über-confused son Henrik are afforded only minimal rhyme in their respective numbers. The stiff-collared career military man Carl-Magnus gets the least degree of rhyme.
As for the story, A Little Night Music (the title is simply a literal translation of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), a period comedy set in turn of the 20th century Sweden whose characters intertwine in a complex web of amorous pursuits, jealousy and revenge. It’s the stuff opera buffa and operetta plots are made of, even if Sondheim’s melodies — when untethered from their brilliant lyrics — fall short of such accomplished tunesmiths as Johann Strauss, whose Die Fledermaus Syracuse Opera mounted quite successfully last October.
The storyline is wrapped almost completely within the cloak of the waltz — a symbol perhaps of the elegance of the period and the extravagance of characters’ personalities. Like the ubiquitous waltz tempos that permeate the music, the story comes in sets of “three.” The rhythmic meters are in three (or multiples of three); the love trysts are three-sided; and the “riddle of the summer nights” describes a sky that smiles three times — the first for the young, who know nothing (Fredrika); the second for the fools, who know too little (Desirée); and the third for those who know too much (Madame Armfeldt).
At the center of the plot lay the Fredrik/Desirée/Carl-Magnus love triangle that forms the nucleus of all the other trysts and love interests surrounding it. To American audiences, the story’s pervasive exhibition of uninhibited sexual freedom might seem better suited to the Woodstock generation than the ashes of the Victorian Era. But then, this is comedy. The denouement at the end of Act Two sends a message of compassion and forgiveness, suggesting that true love is more permanent, and emotionally fulfilling, than an empty string of momentary diversions.
Because of the preponderance of spoken dialogue and paucity of virtuosic demands on the voice, A Little Night Music calls for actors who can sing more than it does singers who can act. The quality of performance Friday, which I thought was uneven and spotty, was buoyed by a pair of outstanding efforts from Sarah Heltzel (Desirée Armfeldt) and Kate Huddleston (Madame Armfeldt).
As the middle-aged actress now at the twilight of her successful stage career, Heltzel crafts an unusually sympathetic Desirée whose character runs deeper than the reckless “fool” her mother Madame Armfeldt would have us believe.
Heltzel, who looks a bit too young for the part, never gets to show the full splendor of her handsome mezzo-soprano in this role. That’s because Sondheim wrote the part for a specific singer who, in spite of her sweet voice, could not sustain musical phrases. As a result, Heltzel’s signature number Send in the Clowns, though sensitively understated and gently expressive, demonstrated little of her formidable wares as a singer. As an actress, Helzel is a natural in terms of stage deportment and body gestures. She took command of the stage immediately, leaving no question as to whose name is in lights, and spoke clearly with impeccable diction.
Local actress Kate Huddleston, as the story’s grande dame Madame Armfeldt, is better known to Central New York audiences for her theatrical roles. Her gripping portrayal as Linda Loman in last year’s CNY Playhouse production of Death of a Salesman earned her the Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award for “Best Leading Actress.”
Huddleston is suitably dour as Desirée’s weary, domineering and difficult to please mother — whose only true friend appears to be her naive, convent-trained granddaughter. Like Heltzel, Huddleston’s voice carried effortlessly through the Carrier Theater during the spoken dialogue. Her voice however was not especially well suited to the deep pedal tones of Sondheim’s writing, which often sits below the staff.
As the lawyer Fredrik Egerman, Peter Kendall Clark sang his signature number Now with the proper amalgam of anxiety, resentment and frustration befitting a middle-age man whose 18-year-old trophy wife of 11 months continues to withhold her virginity until she’s “ready.” Clark’s good diction and firm baritone served him well, both in the musical numbers and dialogue. As an actor, however, he tended to appear a bit impatient during his intimate conversations with Desirée, allowing little time for thought and contemplation. A little pause here and there for reflection would go a long way in boosting his character’s credibility.
As Fredrik’s teen bride, Anne, Rachel Zatcoff fashions a handsome-looking character who oozes youthful exuberance, vanity and, naturally, self doubts. Though Zatcoff possesses a sweet and pleasant singing voice (as could be seen in her first act Soon), the scope of her soprano is somewhat small and perhaps better suited at this early stage in her career to lieder. The lack of volume and projection made it difficult for listeners to process her words in all but the high register.
Kevin Newell, making his Syracuse Opera debut as Fredrik’s son Henrik, crafted a confused, disillusioned and sexually repressed young man whose devotion to the Lutheran priesthood is constantly being derailed by his infatuation with Anne and lust for the maid, Petra. Newell has a strong voice and doesn’t shy away from the high notes — which he belts out fearlessly in his first number, Later.
As the not-so-innocent maid Petra, Kaitlyn Costello Fain plays her role with a nice blend of coquettishness and raw, earthy sexuality. Her big number, The Miller’s Son, was nevertheless far too reserved for this extrovert piece, which when done properly is a virtual showstopper. Perhaps as the run continues Fain will drop the inhibitions and shift fully into character.
As the pugnacious and affected military commander Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Mark Womak in his Syracuse Opera debut combined a sturdy baritone in his In Praise of Women with convincing stage presence. His war of words with Fredrik, later followed by a gentlemanly challenge to a duel in the form of Russian Roulette, injected an effective dose of levity throughout the show. As Malcolm’s wife Charlotte, Danan Tsan harnessed laughs as the affected (though mistreated) wife who looks to pin her revenge on Anne, as the wife of Desirée’s love interest, Fredrik. Tsan’s singing however was not as engaging as her acting Friday.
With her red hair and innocent looks, young Katherine Krebs as Desirée’s 13-year-old daughter Fredrika has the advantage of looking like the real-life daughter of her stage-mother, Heltzel. (Krebs’s resemblance to Huddleston is uncanny, as well.) The senior at Skaneateles High School carries herself exceptionally well onstage, with grace of body movement and ease of footwork that suggests years of ballet lessons (I’m just guessing here). Krebs sings well, too, although she needs to learn to project more effectively.
The weakest link in the musical ensemble Friday was the five Liebeslieder Singers, who appear at the opening and closing of the show and several appearances in between in order to participate in, or comment on, the dramatic action. This quintet, which functions largely as a Greek Chorus, has some important musical material (solo and ensemble) to present, and as such must maintain as strong a vocal presence as it does visual. This was not the case, as the blend of voices in the famous Night Waltz and elsewhere was uneven, both in volume and timbral quality.
The staging by Marc Astafan was remarkably smooth and effective given the size of the Carrier Theater stage. He always seemed to place the singing actors in all the best places, whether singing, acting or dancing. The choreography of the Weekend in the Country extravaganza, aided by Jody Luce’s opulent period costumes, was visually stunning.
What: A Little Night Music, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
Who: Syracuse Opera
Language: Sung in English (note: no projected titles)
Where: Carrier Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6, 2015
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11; 8 p.m. Feb. 13; and 2 p.m. Feb. 15
Length: About 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets: $26 to $86, call (315) 476-7372 or syracuseopera.org