Like Stephen Sondheim’s main inspiration for it, Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, his clever, witty musical is froth and comedy only on the surface, a meringue with a hard centre. It was an excellent choice to mark the beginning of the end of pandemic rules, though of course half the seats in the Quarry Theatre at Leeds Playhouse had to be empty, and face masks were compulsory. The precautionary measures did not diminish the enthusiastic responses to this long-awaited production in the least, because most of what was on the capacious thrust stage was magnificent, and the final theme of breaking away from the past and moving on to what could be a more loving and fulfilling future seemed appropriate. Madeline Boyd’s set is a little sparse but brilliant, on a large expanse, with a Swedish-style doll’s house, mobile double beds and an ornamental pond in a sunken garden for the second half which gives opportunities for concealment and the comic wettening of trousers.

Agatha Meehan (Fredrika Armfeldt)
© Sharron Wallace

The future is represented as the main action begins by Fredrika Armfeldt, played by the light-footed, beautifully-voiced Agatha Meehan, who is just thirteen, being advised on her behaviour by her been-there, seen-it-all grandmother, veteran soprano Dame Josephine Barstow, who stands to commanding effect whenever she rises from her invalid carriage. Agatha is returning to the same stage she ruled as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in December, 2019, also directed by James Brining. The fine baritone Quirijn de Lang, a constant pleasure at Opera North, often seems to have a trace of Basil Fawlty in his genes, and he brings out the ridiculous aspects of lawyer Fredrik Egerman superbly. He is at his peak in “You must meet my wife”, sung with soprano Stephanie Corley as his old flame Desiree Armfeldt. The pair match very well, having performed as Fred And Lilli in Opera North’s revival of its Kiss Me, Kate in 2018. Corley’s “Send in the Clowns” gets the audience’s undivided attention, predictably, and she does not disappoint, with a movingly warm and gentle interpretation of this brief but complex meditation on past pleasures and passing time, the best I have heard.

Dame Josephine Barstow (Madame Armfeldt)
© Sharron Wallace

Soprano Corinne Cowling, as Egerman’s virginal young wife Anne, is impressive in “Soon” and copes well with a tricky part, progressing from naivety through the realisation that her much older husband, who prefers taking a nap to sex, is still in thrall to Desiree, to eloping with her previously prudish stepson Henrik. He is played by talented newcomer to the stage, tenor Laurence Kilsby, who delivers religious rants convincingly, never quite going over the top. Mezzo Amy J Payne as Anne’s maid Petra delivers a formidable broadside with “The Miller’s Son”, and Desiree’s uniformed and “pea brained” lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, is played as more than a stock burlesque version of a soldier prone to outbursts of bravado by baritone Christopher Nairne, who endows him with the entertaining, cruel quirkiness which makes his neglected wife (Helen Evora) continue to love him. He is most impressive when paired with his rival for Desiree’s attention, Fredrik Egerman, and excels with him in the duet “It would have been wonderful”.

Quirijn de Lang (Fredrik Egerman)
© Sharron Wallace

The Quintet, sometimes described rather misleadingly as ‘a Greek Chorus’ both sing commentaries and act as scenery shifters, a bunch of ‘rude mechanicals’ amongst the rich and sophisticated principals, perhaps. They are powerful scene-setters, for example with “The Sun Won’t Set” at the beginning of Act 2. The couple of dozen socially-distanced members of the orchestra, conducted by James Holmes, are positioned in deep shadow at the back of the action. They establish the mood sensitively with the triple-time music (not just waltzes), with flute and harp suitably accented to give a magical effect, and follow Sondheim’s intentions fluently, which are to blend in with the dilemmas of characters caught up in love triangles and with the old Swedish folk saying about the three smiles of a summer night with young lovers in mind, for the clowns, the fools and the incorrigible but also for the grieving, the sleepless and the lonely. 

This partnership between Leeds Playhouse and Opera North promises to continue into next year and will hopefully provide productions as simply magnificent as this one.