thu 20/06/2024

A Little Night Music, Opera Holland Park review - wasn't it bliss? | reviews, news & interviews

A Little Night Music, Opera Holland Park review - wasn't it bliss?

A Little Night Music, Opera Holland Park review - wasn't it bliss?

For one night, we were part of a full-on theatrical experience once again

Send in the clouds: Janie Dee as Desirée Armfeldt Danny Kaan

A lot of rain and untold bliss: those were the takeaways from Saturday night’s alfresco Opera Holland Park concert performance of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s eternally glorious 1973 musical, A Little Night Music.

I doubt any of the 200 or so people in attendance will soon forget that night's music, and not only because those who stayed the course are very likely still drying out from a belligerently sustained summer squall that mattered little set against the immediacy and necessity of art. 

Among the 90-year-old composer's most popular titles, and showcasing his best-known song (the wistful "Send in the Clowns"), the musical is adapted from an unlikely source: Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, a romantic comedy that relates the complex mating dance of four couples who converge at a country house party where the various liaisons come to both erotic and also comic fruition. Think of the result as The Marriage of Figaro as it might look rewritten by Noël Coward, and you have some idea of the singular achievement of a piece that is far more astringent than its 3/4-time airiness might at first lead one to believe. (Well, 3/4 waltz time, or multiples thereof.) Hilary Harwood as Madame Armfeldt in Holland Park It was clear from the lowering skies at the early-evening start of the concert – the sixth show at this address during this strange summer that anything could happen with the weather, and so it did: by the time Janie Dee, the event’s co-producer and its entirely winning Desirée Armfeldt, had reached that much-covered second-act signature song, the heavens had well and truly opened. Dee, undaunted, rose to the challenge as if inviting Sondheim at his wisest and most ruminative to do direct battle with nature. “Don’t you love farce?” she sang, emerging from beneath the twin canopies of Holland House to meet the full force of the rain head on. The lyric got a laugh from a crowd lost in admiration for Dee's stamina, all the while taking on new meaning in a Covid-aware staging that utilised the full cast required for the show but kept them at a necessary remove from one another. (No familial embrace at the end, for instance.) 

The first act concludes with the ever-hopeful lovers commingling at the home of the ageing Madame Armfeldt (Hilary Harwood, channelling her Lady Bracknell and pictured above), an occasion about which one of the partygoers remarks, "we'll go masked". That line was not added to accommodate our current times, nor, believe it or not, were the second act references to quarantine and plague. . 

This may not have been the most nuanced account ever of the show’s complex roundelay of love and lust among multiple generations of suitors: subtlety isn't easy confronted with an unforgiving British summer. But the collective appetite for live theatre, not least from performers denied a public for more than five months, lent urgency to a piece that can often seem comparatively dreamy, especially by comparison with the harder-edged Sondheim shows, Follies and Sweeney Todd, that bookended this composer's astonishingly fertile output during the 1970s. As ever, one was caught up in the travails of the touring actress, Desirée, as she juggles the demands of motherhood and a career with the attentions of numerous men, chief amongst them the former lover, Fredrik (a clarion-voiced Damian Humbley, late of the Menier's Merrily We Roll Along), who has come back into her life. 

Laura Pitt-Pulford as Petra in Holland ParkThe show is driven by its Desirée, and Dee did the part proud, sounding notes of regret and rue alongside the necessary impetuosity to explain the character's lingering allure. Returning to a role she played in concert in 2015, Dee exhibited a genuinely starry sheen, which is in no way meant to diminish a supporting cast including Dee's onetime colleague from Follies and Carousel, Joanna Riding, who was a grandly self-lacerating Countess – the seasoned wit who must endure the roving eye of her vainglorious husband (a dashing Nadim Naaman, managing against the odds to make this pumped-up swain sympathetic). Playing the insatiably libidinous maid Petra, a pregnant Laura Pitt-Pulford (pictured above) communicated appetite writ large and she, too, stepped into the lashings of the night sky with abandon. 

Alongside an imperturbable cast, conductor Alex Parker and his ace musicians valiantly landed the delicacy and grace of a score against the sloshing rain, while fighting to keep their instruments dry. As the show reached its mortality-inflected conclusion (loss is integral to the story, as is love), eyes seemed to moisten on both sides of the footlights as many among the dually grateful audience and actors allowed themselves a thankful tear at partaking of the theatre, and on a proper scale, once again. 

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