Stephen Sondheim is the equal of Giacomo Puccini? That claim by Syracuse Opera artistic head Douglas Kinney Frost is borne out in the melancholic romanticism of A Little Night Music at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Carrier Theater.
What Kinney Frost praises is Sondheim’s ability to infuse his music with dramatic passion. The music must not merely ornament the emotions of the narrative but embody them. Consider the show’s signature solo, ”Send in the Clowns,” one of the best-known songs of the last century. We all know the words from Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins, yet you have to be there to see what it gains as a peak moment in an opera.
A Little Night Music is a dark comedy of absurd love. Desiree Armfeldt (mezzo Sarah Heltzel) is supposed to be an over-the-hill actress (doesn’t look it!) on tour in the provinces. Her married lover, an army officer, Carl-Magnus (baritone Mark Womack), treats her badly.
On tour she sees her heart’s desire: Fredrik (baritone Peter Kendall Clark), a middle-aged lawyer, sits in the balcony with his child bride Anne (soprano Rachel Zatcoff). Desiree has kept an important secret from Fredrik. Anne, meanwhile, refuses to sleep with Fredrik and is the object of guilt-ridden passion by Fredrik’s anguished seminarian son Henrik (tenor Kevin Newell), older than she.
What we don’t see at first is that all these lines lead through Desiree. She grasps it all in “Send in the Clowns.” Sarah Heltzel brings massive understatement to lyrics that were originally written for Broadway actress Glynis Johns, who could barely hold a note. Desiree’s restraint in recognizing the collision of deep yearning with nonsense is what moves “Clowns” from the merely bittersweet to the ineffably wrenching. Put this “Send in the Clowns” next to Madame Butterfly’s masterwork of pathos, “Un bel di, vedremo,” and see which one moves an audience more.
All the imported professionals meet the company’s high vocal standards yet also sound adroit with Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s often snappy spoken dialogue. Sarah Heltzel, constantly on stage, is usually heard with other voices, such as the rollicking “You Must Meet My Wife” with Fredrik. In the second act she creates a certain frisson in the ironic duet with her lover’s wife, Charlotte (Danan Tsan), because they both are well aware of how they are cheated upon.
The two baritones make contrasting types. Company favorite Peter Kendall Clark (Die Fledermaus) is so comfortable as the slightly antic Fredrik that at one point he whistles Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, spoofing the translated title of the show. His opposite number is the shorter, darker Mark Womack as nominal villain Carl-Magnus. His cynical solo, “In Praise of Women,” delivers one of the best realized moments in the first act. Opposites clash and then blend in the second act’s “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” Fredrik and Carl-Magnus’ frolicsome duet.
The timely first-act sequence of solos, Fredrik’s “Now,” followed by tenor Henrik’s “Later,” herald the musical entrance of soprano Rachel Zatcoff as the blatantly virginal wife Anne. Her silvery, lyrical voice comes first in the trio “Soon,” with baritone Fredrik and tenor Henrik, but her articulation does not make a good match with Sondheim’s tongue-twisters. Much smoother is her despairing duet with Charlotte, “Every Day a Little Death.”
Kevin Newell scores a palpable hit as the angst-ridden son Henrik, both as an affecting actor and as a tenor opera buffs will love. His unwitting tutor in matters fleshly is mezzo Kaitlyn Costello Fain as the saucy-but-smart maid Petra. In her naughty solo, “The Miller’s Son,” she employs a free-form modern dance to amplify the lyrics.
Most admirable in this production is the inclusion of several community players. Kate Huddleston is too youthful and pretty for the crone Madame Armfeldt, but her excellent delivery of key lines, toasting both life and death at the banquet, defines the tone for the whole. Lovely blonde Danan Tsan holds her own musically, and her mordant wit makes her the major scene-stealer. Skaneateles high schooler Katherine Krebs, a soprano and dancer who looks like she might be Huddleston’s granddaughter, puts the best face on innocence.
Non-collegiate theater companies won’t touch A Little Night Music. It requires Syracuse Opera to give us this rare and difficult jewel.
Syracuse Opera’s production of A Little Night Music will be performed at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Carrier Theater, 411 Montgomery St., on Wednesday. Feb. 11, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 13, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 15, 2 p.m. For more information, call 475-5915.