July 6, 2022

Bravo and a great wow-issimo! The Leeds Playhouse’s association with Opera North is a marriage made from heaven, all the more divine as Sondheim’s original, mesmerizing orchestration is performed live on stage by the Orchestra of Opera North to phenomenal perfection. While the comical tale of unlikely marriages, relationships, and complex love triangles is far from heavenly, and the bizarre situations and characters often border on the insane, the quality of the acting, singing, and acting of each and every performer is so outstanding that the incredible is even that Ridiculous, becomes real enough to captivate, involve and move audiences at every turn.

Sondheim’s musical with book by Hugh Wheeler opened on Broadway in 1973 and was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smile of a summer night. Full of intertwined love affairs, deceptions, longings, regrets and nostalgia, the romantic farce is set in the privileged society of early twentieth-century Sweden (though this production jogs it by a few vague decades). The roles, attitudes, needs and aspirations of men and women in relation to marriage and amorous liaisons, both conjugal and extramarital, are what drive the turmoil and fuel all the physical and emotional happenings, affecting everyone’s thoughts, dreams and fears Scenes are revealed and developed in a dramatic, music-free form and also in wonderfully integrated songs.

Dressed in gleaming gold, Dame Josephine Barstow, all old, stately elegance and grand diction, is an impressive sight as Madame Armfeldt, seated in her plush armchair. A lady not for deviance delivers rebukes and pearls of worldly, world-weary wisdom with dry, caustic wit, and revels, though not without regret, in the memory of her glorious past, when amorous liaisons with those in high places were extraordinarily discreet and brought great material reward. From a more modern era, her daughter Desiree is a working actress, far from discreet in her amorous affairs. Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy creates a wonderfully warm, personable Desiree, while Lucy Sherman as her school-age daughter Fredrika is equally warm and lovely.

Meanwhile, Desiree’s ex-lover, lawyer Fredrik Egerman, played by baritone Quirijin de Langwith with grey-haired straightforwardness and comical spark, has married 18-year-old Anne. Radiant soprano Corinne Cowling splutters and leaps as the naïve girl who, after 11 months of marriage, still hasn’t found the courage to marry her husband. More her age is stepson Henrik. Dressed in black, downtrodden, depressed, snooty and awkward, Sam Marston hits the spot with his exciting tenor voice and awkward body language, bringing out Henrik’s ramshackle humor as the seminary student grows more and more frustrated, both personally and amorously, even after maid Petra , cosmopolitan, cheerful, down-to-earth, offers him her special help. Despite her own dreams, Petra belongs to the underclass and has resigned herself to eventually ending up with it The miller’s son, and Amy J. Payne’s poignant song about it deserves a big round of applause. She, like every other character, adds her own charm and the comedy is never overdone. Even the proud soldier Count, a big fan of dueling and Russian roulette, and his wife Countess, who make a particularly hilarious couple, are really brought to life and sympathy by the laudable mezzo-soprano Helen Evora and subtle baritone Christopher Nairne.

According to Madame Armfeldt, Summernight smiles at three guys – the young, the old, and the fool (and so Desiree sings Bring in the clowns). Everyone is in the mix, and the smile eventually comes — though there are tears and bewildering agony along the way.

The music is magnificent, always serving drama, mood and emotion and never overpowering them. Deliciously soft, gentle instrumental blends that contain irresistible, gliding dance rhythms give way to magical passages for harp, celeste, oboe, bassoon, timpani, strings, flute and the rest, while new, exciting textures and melodies alternate to excite.

Equally fabulously integrated into the play’s drama and emotion, as well as the shifting of supports, is a delicate chorus of five omnipresent characters. Like all the performers, these wear a whole range of interesting clothing to commemorate the period, including bowler hats, boat trousers, suspenders, corsets, waistcoats, petticoats, sweaters, ties and a knotted handkerchief on their heads. Their fabulous singing voices and lively songs, sung individually or together, contribute significantly to telling the thoughts and events in the lives of the main characters and round off the entire musical in a pleasant way. Also like duets and trios of the main character Now/soon/later and ensemble numbers like the grand finale in Act I A weekend in the country are particularly enjoyable, this one keeps everyone humming the tune in the intermission and wanting more.

Like her costumes, Madeleine Boyd’s sets have a sparkle of their own – and not just because of the chandelier that was hoisted into place at the start. On the patterned wooden floor of a sliding stage, massively and irregularly gnawed all around by giant rodents, sit simple oases of impressive, easy-to-move props, lit for individual scenes – a big old bedstead, a vanity mirror, a desk, antique chairs, old ones Paintings, grandfather clock, tilted piano, Fredrika’s high doll’s house, and for the game within the game a magnificent red velvet curtain descends. Act II creates an equally eclectic space: a sunken garden with a circular perimeter, piles of sunken gravel, a marble fountain, a hideous spitting Cupid, and downright wet water.

Here we have a story based on settings from bygone eras, absurd at times even for a comedy, but the all-round excellence of the dramatic interactions, the music, the singing and the live orchestra make this very special, something so glorious Charming and amusing, so engaging and moving that we can wholeheartedly agree with him.

Eileen Caiger Gray

Production runs until July 16th.



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