There is no real tradition for musicals in the Netherlands, neither in terms of performers nor in terms of audience, and programming Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is quite a daring move by the Nederlands Reisopera. This production, currently touring the country and stopped in Amsterdam for just a couple of performances, shows that fortune favours the bold. It is, both theatrically and musically, the whole package and the enthusiastic ovation it received from the audience at the Royal Theater Carré was certainly deserved.

<i>A Little Night Music</i> © Marco Borggreve
A Little Night Music
© Marco Borggreve

The work is based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night but it is telling that Sondheim chose to name it after Mozart’s famous serenade, Eine kleine Nachtmusik. The music, in large part written in waltz meter, has its obvious root somewhere else, but the situations it depicts and its witty lyrics often feel like a 20th-century take on a play by Pierre de Marivaux. The plot is a bittersweet comedy about desire, sex and unrequited love, constructed around a number of intertwined love triangles.

Fredrik Egerman is a successful, middle-aged lawyer. He has an adult son from a previous marriage, Henrik, but has now remarried with a much younger wife, Anne. After eleven months, the marriage has not yet been consummated as Anne has kept a frustrated Fredrik waiting. An old flame is rekindled when Fredrik meets the actress Désirée Armfeldt. However, this meeting stirs up the jealousy of both Anne and Désirée’s current lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, whose wife Charlotte is, in appearance at least, complicit with her husband’s frequent infidelities. The storyline takes winding turns when Désirée invites everyone to spend a weekend at her mother’s country château.

<i>A Little Night Music</i> © Marco Borggreve
A Little Night Music
© Marco Borggreve

Under Zack Winokur's direction, the two acts are visually contrasted. Act 1, set at the Egermans’ home and in Désirée Armfelt’s lodge, is clad in a deep velvety red. Act 2, at Madame Armfeldt’s castle, is staged in marbled white and grey. The way the actors enter, move across, and exit the stage, sometimes carrying props and collapsing or building walls in the process, is choreographed with admirable virtuosity. There are big chunks of sparkling spoken dialogues between the musical numbers that require wit and a great sense of timing. The cast, composed of mainly Dutch nationals, rose to the challenge with flying colours. If there was, unavoidably, a touch of an accent here and there, it never felt distracting; after all, the action of the piece is set in a 1900 Sweden.

A Little Night Music is mostly famous because of the hit song “Send in the Clowns”, but there are plenty of earworms throughout the work. The succession of solo numbers, duets and ensembles recalls again a classical opera setting. There is some very challenging music to sing too, notably in some harmonically-rich ensembles. The mix of actors, singer-actors and classically-trained opera singers gathered for this production works admirably well and the cast is strong throughout.

<i>A Little Night Music</i> © Marco Borggreve
A Little Night Music
© Marco Borggreve

Hadleigh Adams’ robust baritone fits the dashing-but-dim, testosterone-fuelled Count Carl-Magnus as a glove. Jessica Aszodi is irresistible as his hysterical wife Countess Charlotte. Job Greuter makes an emotionally volatile Henrik and even gets to play the cello on stage. As Désirée’s daughter Frederika, Bernadeta Astari’s light soprano sounds suitably youthful. Inez Timmer’s rendition of the song “Liaisons”, in which the old Madame Armfeldt reminisces about some of her past lovers, is one of the highlights of the evening. Sanne Franssen is a fiery Petra, the Egermans’ chambermaid. As Anne Egerman, soprano Laetitia Gerards reveals a solid and bright top range. Dutch actor Paul Groot, as Fredrik Egerman, gives a superb singing performance even if his voice struggles to cut through his classical-trained colleagues’ in the ensembles. “Send in the Clowns” does not hold any technical difficulty for mezzo-soprano Susan Rigvava-Dumas who embarks on a beautifully lyrical rendition that holds the whole audience in suspension.

The cherry on the cake is the luxurious sound of a full symphony orchestra, instead of a pit band usually used in musicals. Conductor Ryan Bancroft leads Het Gelders Orkest with elegant and precise hand movements into a particularly refined reading of Sondheim ‘s score.

****1