Stephen Sondheim's 1973 show, based on an Ingmar Bergman film about sexual intrigues in a duskless Swedish summer, includes a joke about bad opera singing. Ex-lovers recall: “The tenor on the boat that we chartered / belching The Bartered Bride.” Paradoxically, this put-down is sung with impeccable pitch and enunciation, in Opera North’s co-production with Leeds Playhouse, a cultural case of Leeds united.
As the most operetta-ish of Sondheim’s shows, A Little Night Music has been (with the most operatic, Sweeney Todd) evidence for the view that Sondheim marries Broadway with the opera house. (Night Music’s first three New York revivals were operatic not theatrical.)
James Brining’s production – on a Madeleine Boyd set that uses an ornamental fountain to comic and concealing effect – confirms that such hybrid stagings trade musical gain for dramatic loss, and even more so with this show.
Sondheim, in his memoir Finishing the Hat, explains that some songs were written within the limitations of erratically tuneful actors. The short, conversational phrases in Send in the Clowns negotiated the “inability to sustain a note” of Glynis Johns, who originated the role of the actor Desiree, while the semi-recitative Liaisons, the erotic catalogue of her mother, Madame Armfeldt, is also intentionally kind to intermittent singers.
In this staging, soprano Stephanie Corley could sing the whole of Clowns on one breath if required, while the great Dame Josephine Barstow, as the elder woman, could stretch her voice more startlingly than asked. The sound is beautifully pure, but the big solos more resemble arias than the dramatic soliloquies they integrally are.
Another challenge is that this show has long, Ibsenite dialogue scenes (by playwright Hugh Wheeler). Barstow hits every punchline, and Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang, as lawyer Fredrik, is equally pleasing in speech and the conversational song It Would Have Been Wonderful (a rare example of someone wishing their lover looked hideous). Some cast members, aunque, tend to a spoken one-note.
The musical’s first producer, Hal Prince, characterised it as “whipped cream with knives”. The Leeds version is a delicious, sweet confection that will thrill audiences after the long pandemic cultural famine, and the twistingly witty lyrics will rarely ring so clearly. But it lacks the psychological edge of Trevor Nunn’s 2008 Menier Chocolate Factory production, perhaps because Sondheim naturally writes for singing actors rather than acting singers.