Whose voice do you hear singing “Send in the Clowns?” It has to be Barbra Streisand, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s the more classic Judy Collins or Frank Sinatra. Perhaps the original takes the cake, Glynis Johns? The flashier Judi Dench or Cher? Maybe even The Simpson’s season four rendition by Krusty the Clown? Arguably the best known ballad from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, this crowd-pleaser is bound to pick up any show if it has fallen flat. But Houston Grand Opera’s production, created by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, is superb from the start.
A Little Night Music toys with a rotating trio of mismatched couples. Fredrik, married for the second time to the innocent and much younger Anne, loves the glamorous actress Desiree. But Desiree is having an affair with the high-strung Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, who is married to the depressed but devoted Countess Charlotte. And Fredrik’s strapping son Henrik, a seminary student no less, is in love with his step-mother Anne—a twisted situation he has no problem gasping about in guilt.
Above all the coy and jealous games, though, A Little Night Music is about women: wives, mothers, step-mothers, daughters, and grandmothers drive this musical. Familiar tropes of working mothers appear early with “The Glamorous Life,” in which Desiree’s young daughter Fredrika sings “Ordinary mothers lead ordinary lives / Keep the house and sweep the parlour / cook the meals and look exhausted” before revealing her mother is anything but the norm, packing and unpacking constantly to keep up her theatre career on the road.
There was no end to the impressive female cast: Soprano Elizabeth Futral, singing the role of Desiree Armfeldt has a deep, smoky tone that won’t let you down—her “Send in the Clowns” held its own against the sea of other renditions. As the virginal Anne, Andrea Carroll wasted no time in showing off her soprano chops—bell-like and unwavering, Carroll’s voice carried across the theatre with charming grace. Mezzo-sopranos Joyce Castle and Carolyn Sproule as Madame Armfeldt and Countess Charlotte Malcolm respectively, each stole a part of the show—especially Sproule’s “A Little Death” that coursed with expression. And as little Fredrika, Grace Muir will be a singer to watch—she was pitch perfect and consistently delightful.
But the men still managed to make an impression. While baritone Mark Diamond played the stuffy part of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm flawlessly, his voice—a dreamy combination of strength and divine vibrato control—brought unexpected sexiness to his uptight character. Chad Shelton, in the tenor role of Fredrik Egerman, matched Elizabeth Futral’s in charisma. Making his HGO debut as Henrik, Brenton Ryan proved as endearing in character as his voice has talent—he is a tenor I hope to hear again soon.
This production might be the best comprehensive piece in HGO’s season so far—the set and singing linked seamlessly. Conductor Eric Melear’s hands danced over Sondheim’s enduring score, capturing the easy essence of language in musical form while the backdrop shifted from bright azure blue to hazy oranges and yellows, cozy greens and brilliant purples. The costumes, cream to begin and flashy gold to end, were the ideal aesthetic pairing to the scenery. Let’s hope we see more from Isaac Mizrahi’s vision for opera in production, set, and costume design.
It is rare but refreshing when a company achieves that level of excellence where everything feels effortlessly stunning. It helps that HGO decided to use the smaller Cullen Theater—I wish the Britten chamber operas had also been moved next door. HGO’s A Little Night Music comes about as close to “just right” as a company can get.
A Little Night Music runs through March 23. For more information or tickets, check out Houston Grand Opera’s website.