CASTLETON, Va., July 17, 2012 – Northern Virginia’s opera-centric Castleton Festival tried something a little different this past weekend, as its Castleton Artists Training Seminar (CATS) presented an impressive, fully staged production of Steven Sondheim’s musical, A Little Night Music in the Festival’s main theater facility.
In our recent interview with Dietlinde Turban Maazel, the Festival’s associate director, we learned a bit more about the CATS program which, according to Ms. Maazel, was founded just three years ago as “a little pilot project that included seven students from Northwestern University.” Singer-students in the program from all across the United States are selected via auditions. Those chosen for the program come to Castleton “for seven weeks in the summer and are involved in every operatic production as company members, understudies, and performers,” said Ms. Maazel.
By inference, the CATS program includes primarily younger singers who’ve already demonstrated excellence and professionalism but are still learning their craft. If that’s the case, the CATS program has helped them progress considerably if the Festival’s recent production of Night Music is any evidence. In this production, more experienced singers performed two key roles, but CATS students were featured in important roles as well. This combination resulted in a balanced show where the experienced singers were able to inspire their younger counterparts to achieve on a higher plane.
Nearly every Sondheim production presents both singing and acting challenges of the first magnitude-the kind of challenges that, while still difficult, become relatively routine for veteran opera singers. That’s one likely reason why more opera companies have begun to adopt selected Sondheim works into the operatic repertoire.
A Little Night Music is Sondheim’s imaginative 1973 adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night.” Set back in the 19th century, Sondheim’s musical version of the film relates the story of the well-off but unhappy Fredrik Egerman, a widower who, after losing his beloved wife, marries a teenage girl named Anne who’s only a year older than Fredrik’s son Henrik, a prudish, socially awkward divinity school student.
After nearly a year of marriage, we discover that a squeamish Anne has continued to guard her virginity, much to the consternation of Fredrik. Almost fortuitously, however, Fredrik encounters the beautiful and much-beloved actress, Desirée Armfeldt, with whom he’d carried on a torrid affair in the past.
Given the awkward romantic mix just described, it’s hardly surprising that nature and emotion take their respective courses and help sort out this tangle; although the process is considerably complicated by Desirée’s imperious mother as well as by her own current lover, the pompous and belligerent Count Carl-Magnus Malcom. Add to the mix the count’s much put-upon wife, Countess Charlotte, and you have more than enough to complicate the situation. And create a genteel, understated, and interesting evening of musical theater.
Sondheim’s best work is characterized by an almost verismo approach to musical dialogue, punctuated by incredibly clever and very hard to sing patter songs that rival Gilbert & Sullivan in their verbal complexity. Sondheim, in fact, is perhaps the most literary of contemporary American composers, highly skilled in creating a seamless blend of music and lyrics with a skill not seen since the equally masterful efforts of Cole Porter. All this creative skill is on display in Night Music, and it takes a cast that “gets it” in its entirety to make this show sparkle.
Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the Festival’s young CATS cast, along with their veteran counterparts, was able to bring off this show last weekend with a remarkably crisp and sophisticated effort. Even more remarkable was the fact that last weekend’s four performances were split between two entirely different casts, with the “A” cast performing on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon while the “B” cast performed Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Select experienced singers sang in all four performances.
As the Washington National Opera often notes when it presents operas using two alternating casts, the designations “A” and “B” have no bearing on excellence or professionalism. We can vouch for that in this production, as our only available review date enabled us to take in the B cast whose performance seemed awfully good to us.
Bass-baritone Christopher Besch was a strong, upstanding Fredrik, carrying his part with a kind of befuddled grace as his romantic interests whirled out of control. As his young, fairly clueless, and oddly insensitive new bride Anne, soprano April Martin embodied the part and helped create the sense of romantic discomfort that drives this story forward.
As young Henrik, tenor Carl Biehn inhabited his role as a confused teen who pursues one goal while secretly desiring another. His slightly reedy voice was strong but is still developing which proved to be an odd asset in this peculiar but key part.
The tall, physically imposing tenor Andy McCullough was perfectly cast as the blustering, dimwitted Count Malcom, with his booming voice creating just the right measure of tension for this genteel, romantic tragicomedy of manners. As his wife, the countess, mezzo-soprano Emily Spencer was more than his match, with a surprisingly authoritative voice of her own to add to the mix.
Soprano Valerie Nelson was extraordinarily effective as the haughty, imperious Madam Armfeldt in both casts. It’s a difficult role. Madam A is, in effect, the voice of experience in this show. Speaking or singing at all times from a wheelchair, she frequently seems disgusted with the romantic tangles her daughter gets into, but is also possessed of the wisdom of the ages. Vocally, this part is difficult to project, but Ms. Nelson seemed to have no problems at all, becoming a compelling focal point every time she was wheeled on stage. (And a special hat tip to mezzo Agostina Migoni as the young granddaughter to whom Madam A addressed many of her pearls of wisdom.)
The standout performance during the Sunday matinee, however, was turned in by mezzo-soprano Julia Hardin who performed with both casts as Desirée Armfeldt. Poised, mature, regal, yet meltingly warm, the already considerably experienced Ms. Hardin made it clear where her character’s heart really belonged, providing motive and impulse for the entire production. Her acting was splendidly nuanced, perfectly understated, but always elegant. And best of all—her simply outstanding vocal performance of this show’s one signature song, “Send in the Clowns.”
Much has been made over the years of Judy Collins’ surprising and seemingly definitive recording of this hit song. But Ms. Hardin, quietly and without fuss, contextualized the song in a way that made the whole show pivot about that moment. Time simply stopped during her performance. The audience was hushed to the point where you could literally hear a pin drop, even though thunder had been threatening ominously only a few moments before she began to sing. We always look for magic in a performance, and it certainly happened here.
Night Music features a relatively large cast including singers and actors in bit parts as well as a large chorus and an unusual “Greek Chorus” style quintet, which danced in from time to time to comment on the action. Choral numbers were sprightly during Sunday’s performance, although the quintet occasionally seemed a bit unpolished around the edges.
The orchestra performed well under the baton of Levi Hammer, although the orchestra occasionally overwhelmed the singers, primarily in Act I. Dorothy Danner’s measured, effective stage direction helped present both the action and the singers in the best possible light. And costume designer Lara de Bruijn’s period costumes were surprisingly lavish and elegant.
Our only real criticism of Sunday’s show was an iffy sound system, which threw too much of the sound to the left of the performance space on Sunday afternoon before it was apparently adjusted later in Act I. Miking was also a bit spotty throughout, again most noticeable in the first act where some of the lyrics became unintelligible—a real problem in a Sondheim show.
On the whole, however, this was a fine performance and a fine production, made all the more impressive by the fact that it was the CATS program’s first full production ever in its history at the Castleton Festival. Kudos to all involved.
Rating: ** (Two stars.)
The Castleton Festival concludes this weekend with a series of vocal performances and a Bach recital by renowned violin soloist Jennifer Koh. You can purchase tickets for remaining Castleton Festival performances at the Castleton Festival website. Or, contact the Castleton Concierge (866-974-0767 or email@example.com) for tickets and information on accommodations, dining, and transportation.
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