July 6, 2022
Bravo and wonderful wow-isima! The association of Leeds Playhouse with Opera North is a marriage made in heaven, all the more divine as Sondheim’s original, enchanting orchestration is performed to phenomenal perfection live on stage by the Opera North Orchestra. While the comic story of improbable marriages, relationships and complicated love triangles is far from paradise, and the bizarre situations and characters often reach the point of insanity, the quality of acting, singing and acting of each individual performer is so wonderful that it becomes unbelievable, even funny. real enough to capture, involve and move the audience at every turn.
Sondheim’s musical based on the book by Hugh Wheeler was produced on Broadway in 1973, based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Summer night smiles. Full of intertwined love affairs, deception, longing, regret and nostalgia, the romantic farce is set in privileged Swedish society at the turn of the twentieth century (though this production takes it a few hazy decades). The roles, relationships, needs, and aspirations of men and women in relation to marriage and love affairs, both marital and extramarital, are what stir up the commotion and drive all physical and emotional events, with everyone’s thoughts, dreams, and fears revealed and develop dramatically, without the music of the scene, as well as in wonderfully combined songs.
Dressed in polished gold, Dame Josephine Barstow, old-fashioned, stately elegance and lush diction, is a commanding presence as Madame Armfeldt sits in her plush bath chair. A lady not out to change, she delivers rebukes and pearls of worldly, world-weary wisdom with a dry, biting wit, reveling, though not without regret, in memories of her glorious past, when love affairs with high office were extremely low-key. and brought a great material reward. From a more modern era, her daughter Desiree is a working actress who is far from restrained in her love affairs. Mezzo-soprano Sandra Pickes Eddy makes a beautifully warm, sympathetic Desiree, while Lucy Sherman as her schoolgirl daughter Frederica is also warm and friendly.
Meanwhile, Désirée’s former lover, lawyer Fredrik Eggermann, played by baritone Quirigin de Langwith with gray-haired straightness tinged with a comic spark, has married 18-year-old Anne. Bright soprano Corinne Cowling seethes and bounces as the naïve girl who, after 11 months of marriage, still hasn’t worked up the courage to marry her husband. Her stepson Henrik is older than her age. Dressed in black, subdued, depressed, flamboyant and out of place, Sam Marston hits the spot with his haunting tenor tones and clumsy body language, bringing out Henrik’s morose humor as the seminary student becomes increasingly frustrated both personally and romantically, even after Petra’s maid, worldly, joyful, down-to-earth, offers him her special help. Despite her own dreams, Petra is an underclassman, so she’s resigned to eventually ending up with Son of a miller, and Amy Jay Payne’s poignant song about it earns applause. She, like any other character, adds her own charm and the comedy is never overdone. Even the haughty soldier count, a big fan of dueling and Russian roulette, and his wife the countess, who are a particularly ridiculous pair, are well and truly brought to life and likable by Helen Evora’s laudable mezzo and Christopher Nairn’s excellent baritone.
According to Madame Armfeld, a summer night smiles on three types – the young, the old and the foolish (and thus Desiree sings Send the clowns). They’re all in the mix, and the smiles eventually come – though there are tears and tortuous suffering along the way.
Great music throughout, always serving the drama, mood and emotion and never overpowering them. Beautifully smooth, mellow instrumental blends that include exciting, sliding dance rhythms give way to magical passages for harp, celeste, oboe, bassoon, timpani, strings, flute and more, while new, exciting textures and melodies alternately delight.
The excellent chorus of five omnipresent characters is also incredibly integrated into the drama and emotion of the piece, as well as the prop changes. Like all actors, they have a range of interesting items of clothing to recall the period, including a bowler hat, boat, suspenders, corsets, waistcoats, petticoat, pullover, tie and a knotted headscarf. Their wonderful singing and vivid songs, sung individually or together, play a big role both in connecting the thoughts and events in the lives of the main characters, and in making the whole musical enjoyable. The main characters also like duets and trios Now/Soon/Later and ensemble numbers such as the Act One finale Weekend in the country especially enjoyable, it keeps everyone humming the tune at intervals and craving more.
Like her costumes, Madeleine Boyd’s set also has its own sparkle – and not just from the chandelier lifted into place at the start. On the patterned wooden floor of the pressure stage, which has been massively and irregularly gnawed away by giant rodents all around its edge, sit simple oases of evocative props that are easily moved, lit for individual scenes – a big old bed, a make-up mirror, a desk, vintage chairs, an old painting, an old clock, a tilting piano, Fredricka’s towering dollhouse, and for a play within a play, a sumptuous red velvet curtain descends. Act II creates an equally diverse space: a sunken garden with a circular perimeter, piles of sunken gravel, a marble fountain, a hideous, sputtering Cupid, and some wet water.
We have a story based on the views of past eras, absurd in places even for comedy, but the all-round perfection of dramatic interactions, music, singing and live orchestra make it really something special, something so magical and fun, so exciting and touching that we can believe he has all his heart.
Eileen Keiger Gray
Production will continue until July 16.