Out of the Shadows

Monday, 5 July 2021

Ensemble collaboration: Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music from Opera North and the Leeds Playhouse

Sondheim: A Little Night Music - Opera North, Leeds Playhouse (Photo Sharron Wallace)
Sondheim: A Little Night Music - Opera North, Leeds Playhouse (Photo Sharron Wallace)

Sondheim A Little Night Music; Dame Josephine Barstow, Quirijn de Lang, Stephanie Corley, dir: James Brining, cond: Opera North; Opera North and Leeds Playhouse

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 July 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
With a largely operatic cast yet staged at Leeds Playhouse this fine collaboration brings a different focus to Sondheim's intriguing evening of marital disharmony

Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music was planned by Opera North and the Leeds Playhouse for May 2020, a follow-up to their hugely successful production of Sondheim's Into the Woods in 2016. the production finally saw the light of day on 26 June 2021, in a suitably modified production.

We caught Sondheim's A Little Night Music at the Leeds Playhouse on 3 July 2021. The production was directed by James Brining (artistic director of Leeds Playhouse) and conducted by James Holmes (Opera North's former head of music) with the orchestra of Opera North using Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations, and members of the chorus of Opera North cast in around a dozen roles. The cast included Dame Josephine Barstow as Madame Armfeldt, Stephanie Corley as Desiree Armfeldt, Lucy Sherman as Fredrika Armfeldt, Quirijn de Lang as Fredrik Egerman, Corinne Cowling as Anne Egerman, Laurence Kilsby as Henrik Egerman, Amy J Payne as Petra, Christopher Nairne as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Helen Evora as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Ivan Sharpe as Frid. The quintet was double cast and we saw Miranda Bevin, Amy Freston, Hazel Croft, James Davies and Stuart Laing. Designs were by Madeleine Boyd, lighting by Chris Davey, and choreography by Lucy Hind. Sebastian Frost was the sound designer and it is a tribute to his work that I hardly noticed it.

Sondheim: A Little Night Music - Josephine Barstow - Opera North, Leeds Playhouse (Photo Sharron Wallace)
Sondheim: A Little Night Music - Josephine Barstow - Opera North, Leeds Playhouse (Photo Sharron Wallace)

The stage at the Leeds Playhouse is a surprisingly capacious place. It was fully opened up with James Holmes conducting the 25-strong orchestra at the rear. For the overture and the opening to Act Two, the orchestra was visible whilst for the remainder of the show they were hidden behind a black scrim.

The set was a simple open space populated with objects under dust-covers at first. The quintet, in mid-century work outfits, unpacked and set the scene and throughout were responsible for moving props and furniture around. The setting was mid-century with Desiree as a working woman which of course meant that Josephine Barstow's Madame Armfeldt wore a fabulous 1930s-style satin gown. The props included a dolls-house for Frederika to play with yet also hinting at the wider antics of the play. For Act Two, the fountain was placed centrally forming a significant part of the action.

Opera North has a long history of performing American musicals, though generally British opera companies do not explore this repertoire (the way many regional German companies do). Yes, Sondheim needs trained voices but we usually hear it with music-theatre trained ones. Bringing the members of the chorus of Opera North as the vocal quintet provided a fascinating change to the sound world. Vibrant and present, these five were part of the theatre itself, not observers but active participants with a suitably live-in quality to the performance.

Who is the star of A Little Night Music? For all the strength and depth to the casting, there was a lovely ensemble feel to the performance.

Sondheim: A Little Night Music - Opera North, Leeds Playhouse (Photo Sharron Wallace)
Sondheim: A Little Night Music - Opera North, Leeds Playhouse (Photo Sharron Wallace)

Josephine Barstow as Madame Armfeldt, unusually in this role playing her age (Barstow is 80), had a lovely watchful quality, quietly observing and disapproving (Barstow has a very expressive countenance). The one-liners were all there, but with a more world-weary tone and there was a melancholic feel to the performance, a looking back. 'Liaisons' was mesmerising, and done in Hermione Gingold mode, Barstow moving effortlessly between, spoken, sung and something in-between.

Stephanie Corley's Desiree was more likeable than in some productions, not so much self-absorbed and selfish as simply busy. One of the things I noticed in this production was how all the women had some underlying strength to them. Corley's first scene with Quirijn de Lang's Fredrik really made sparks fly and it was from this point that the production took off, and Corley's contribution to 'You must meet my wife' was priceless. Throughout Corley and De Lang made Desiree and Fredrik's relationship crackle even when not the centre of attention. And of course, 'Send in the clowns' was touching and not a torch-song at all. Lucy Sheehan's impressively sung Fredrika was delightfully knowing, and with a sense of her mother's strength of mind.

Quirijn de Lang brought a fine sense of befuddled world-weariness to Fredrik, giving him a lived-in, rumpled charm. A man who is surprised in his comfortable middle-aged life, and De Lang made it very much about Fredrik's mid-life crisis. Corinne Cowling was charmingly annoying as Anne Egerman, yuu wanted to shake her, and of course that is what happens. When finally she twigged and ran off with Henrik you wanted to cheer.

Sondheim: A Little Night Music - Stephanie Corley, Quirijn de Lang - Opera North, Leeds Playhouse (Photo Sharron Wallace)
Sondheim: A Little Night Music - Stephanie Corley, Quirijn de Lang - Opera North, Leeds Playhouse (Photo Sharron Wallace)

There is something surprising about the music to A Little Night Music, many of the songs have independent life, yet in context simply are part of the drama. A case in point is Anne Egerman and Countess Charlotte's duet, 'Every day a little death' which arises so wonderfully out of their conversation and was here rendered so well by Cowling and Helen Evora with the right combination of regret and edge.

Henrik Egerman is, to a certain extent, a thankless role, constantly moping and with a killer opening number. Laurence Kilsby gave a dramatic account of this opening number, and throughout made Henrik dramatically interesting as well as finely sung.  Amy J Payne was certainly not the ingenue as Anne's maid, Petra. Experienced and wry, Payne brought create charm to the role and proved to have a terrific belt voice in 'The Miller's Son'. Christopher Nairne took pomposity to its ultimate as Count Carl-Magnus, a delightful yet dangerous idiot, whilst Helen Evora brought a surprising strength and a nice line in one-liners to his wife Charlotte.

Ivan Sharpe made Frid (Madame Armfeldt's manservant) another of those constant, watchful presences supported by Sarah Blood, Warren Gillespie and Kathryn Stevens as members of the household.

Sondheim: A Little Night Music - Laurence Kilsby, Corinne Cowling - Opera North, Leeds Playhouse (Photo Sharron Wallace)
Sondheim: A Little Night Music - Laurence Kilsby, Corinne Cowling - Opera North, Leeds Playhouse (Photo Sharron Wallace)

This was a very strong collaboration between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse and a tribute to the strength of Opera North's chorus as well as the company's ability to adjust style to present a musical so idiomatically. The production did not quite manage to solve the problem of the first act being slightly too long, but overall we were presented with a fascinating group of characters, strongly etched and finely sung, and were gripped. 




Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Exploring big themes: composer Luke Styles chats about his posthumous collaboration with Benjamin Britten in the new opera Awakening Shadow - interview
  • Satisfyingly concentrated: Harry Christophers & The Sixteen's The Call of Rome at Kings Place - concert review
  • More than a work in progress: first showing of Erchao Gu and Clare Best's opera Rotten Kid - opera review
  • Three characters in a room: Nature and the Imagination from the Pelléas Ensemble  - record review
  • Gloriously imaginative - LANDSCAPES, KNIVES & GLUE – Radiohead’s Kid A Recycled from string quintet Wooden Elephant  - record review
  • Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Grange Festival - opera review
  • A wartime Manon: Puccini's opera set in Occupied France in Stephen Lawless' new production at The Grange Festival - opera review
  • Talking to us through the music: Rachel Podger in a programme of music for unaccompanied violin by Bach at Kings Place - concert review
  • It should be essential repertoire: former BBC New Generation Artist trumpeter Simon Höfele chats about the 20th-century works for trumpet and piano on his new disc on Berlin Classics - interview
  • Scottish piano music: Christopher Guild continues his explorations with disc devoted to Francis George Scott and to Ronald Stevenson's transcriptions  - record review
  • Berlin im Licht: A Kurt Weill songbook from Ricardo Panela and Nuno Vieira de Almeida  record review
  • Tosca in an iconic location: Seattle Opera film's Puccini's opera at St James Cathedral, Seattle - opera review 
  • The Constant Heart: the Marian Consort at the Dunster Festival - concert review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month