It would be interesting to hear Ingmar Bergman’s opinion of A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim’s overrated musical version of the Swedish director’s classic film comedy Smiles of a Summer Night. Perhaps, like me, he regrets that a major composer will probably never make a real opera from the material, one with a score that captures the movie’s subtle layering, exquisite symmetries, and dangerous edge. For all its passing charms, Sondheim’s wispy waltzing never does that, so maybe it doesn’t really matter that there are no singers to speak of in the City Opera’s revival of its 1992 production. Back then, the cast was largely drawn from the opera world, and consisted of singers who could act rather than what we have now—amplified, voiceless actors who rap more than they sing.
That scarcely seems to concern the show’s many fans, who are apparently not at all bothered by Jeremy Irons’s vaguely pitched rendition of “Now” or Juliet Stevenson’s shaky traversal of “Send in the Clowns.” While nowhere near as engaging as Bergman’s original film actors, they at least capture much of the characters’ brittle verbal humor. But Night Music still needs singers to give the piece as much musical dimension as it can get, and precious little of that is present here. I do relish one irony about the casting, though: The ancient Madame Armfeldt is played by Claire Bloom, the mother of a real opera singer (Anna Steiger). I wonder if there has ever been another instance of a mother making a City Opera debut so many years after her own daughter’s bow with the company.
Kristin Huxhold (Anne Egerman), Danny Gurwin (Henrik Egerman), and Michele Pawk (Charlotte Malcolm) are just as vocally challenged as their colleagues, although compared with them, Marc Kudisch (Carl-Magnus Malcolm), a baritone who has clearly had some training, sounds like Lawrence Tibbett. I daresay no one would complain about Scott Ellis’s fluid direction or Michael Anania’s minimalist sets, a dreamy nocturnal evocation of one day in the land of the midnight sun. And of course, Paul Gemignani, who has made a specialty of Sondheim, is a conductor whose authority is never in question. Still, why City Opera—given its mandates, its history, and its priorities—chose to mount this sorry one-off venture completely escapes me.
For at least a generation, Otello at the Metropolitan Opera has meant Plácido Domingo in the title role and James Levine on the podium, so it was a bit of a shock to encounter relative strangers doing the honors on the opening night of the current revival. For some of us who can actually remember an era at the Met when Verdi’s masterpiece had interpreters other than (and—heresy!—perhaps even superior to) Domingo and Levine, expectations were high. No such luck. Valery Gergiev conducted the score as if he were already late for his next performance, and the musicians played as though they actually hated the man standing in front of them. Often inspired when leading Russian opera with his own Kirov forces, Gergiev has yet to prove that he can apply his gifts to a wider repertory and in front of other orchestras.
Matters were not much better onstage. Vladimir Galouzine’s tenor sounded caught somewhere in the back of his throat, and his intense acting was the stuff of silent movies. Looking fatherly and comparatively harmless, Nikolai Putilin was mostly a cipher as Iago, and Kallen Esperian’s vocally pallid Desdemona was strictly from the provinces. And isn’t it time that someone mentioned how alarmingly the Met chorus has deteriorated in recent seasons? A night to forget as soon as possible.