By JOHN DeMERS
I love it when “grand opera” takes the night off. Indeed, whenever it does, it becomes possible to see how wonderful the art form actually is – or can be, if liberated from the layers of definitional straightjacket that tell it what it’s allowed and not allowed to do. The current Houston Grand Opera production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is a shimmeringly beautiful example of what happens when opera opens its mind and our eyes.
So yes, A Little Night Music is a Broadway musical – as in, not an opera. And Sondheim is a Broadway composer and almost unbearably smart Broadway lyricist. The result is a show that only “sounds like opera” at the Wortham Center because opera singers are singing it. Yet, by the end of this dazzling, heartfelt and rather heartbreaking production, it has done what all the best operas try to do. We have met and cared about a set of characters, we have entered their joys and sorrows more profoundly than we do in most operas, and we have taken their lives (for a while) as our own. A Little Night Music is deeply moving theater, unforgettable visual art made of set, costume and light, and moment after moment of glorious vocal expression.
For starters, the show is nothing short of gorgeous to look at. Somehow HGO managed to snag superstar designer Isaac Mizrahi to handle the sets and costumes, and the whole package transports us back in time to shows like My Fair Lady and Gigi, which were fashion festivals along with everything else. Lighting designer Brian Nason gets in on the fun, giving the versatile, outdoor-indoor set - a green forest I want for the next Midsummer Night’s Dream I see – a golden glow that evokes the same sunset many of the lyrics describe. Though the romantic loves chronicled here happen at many ages onstage, they are certainly seen from an older, wiser and more saddened perspective. From a sunset, as it were.
The story, based on a Swedish art film by Ingmar Bergman, seems complicated but happily ends up not. It serves up what Sondheim does best: the contrast and occasional conflict of our tireless, indeed undying romantic fantasies with the often-cruel realities of living our stories. Yet we believe, he says. And yet we embrace. By the time the lead character, a much-loved stage actress appropriately named Desiree, sings the musical’s mega-hit “Send in the Clowns” near the end, the song we’ve heard by itself a few hundred other times finally makes sense. And it, without question, reminds us of ourselves, breaking our hearts at the same time.
Operating (on purpose) without percussion, the HGO orchestra conducted by Eric Melear paints the show’s emotional landscape with the same golden glow the lighting uses on the stage. Soprano Elizabeth Futral is irresistible as Desiree – it’s easy to imagine any man who sees this actress onstage wishing to leave his wife and run away with her, at least for the weekend. HGO favorite Chad Shelton is terrific as Fredrik, the widowed-then-remarried man with an almost-grown son, who discovers that his memories of a younger Desiree pack more romantic punch in the present tense than he ever understood. Equal praise is due the others involved in this very oddly shaped triangle: Andrea Carroll as Fredrik’s too-young wife (in a marriage unconsummated after eleven months), Mark Diamond as the stuffy, obnoxious military man who is Desiree’s current lover, and Carolyn Sproule as that officer’s charming but decidedly long-suffering wife.
A Little Night Music increases its emotional reach through commentary from outside these entangled characters: from Desiree’s wheelchair-bound mother remembering her own loves (wonderfully played and sung by Joyce Castle) and from Desiree’s young daughter (Grace Muir) – whose name Fredricka may or may not hint at her paternity. Alicia Gianni enlivens the strange role of Petra, a kind of lady-in-waiting, with a sublimely earthy, world-weary nobility, especially in her Act II number about the course of any marriage. Lastly, the stage is filled with other beautifully costumed and lit beings, who climb trees and ladders, sing bits of choral music, move set pieces on or off, and most compellingly, serve up Sondheim’s commentary. No magical moments of love are allowed to stand without older, wiser, more cynical comments. Yet, in Sondheim’s world as in our own, the moments happen all the same.