BWW Feature: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at De Nederlandse Reisopera: Sondheim's masterpiece back on stage
According to director Zack Winokur, A little night music is much more than light comedy...
The Nederlandse Reisopera's final production of the2018/19 season is Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. No opera, but, as the composer himself phrases it, a'musical comedy of manners'. Opera or musical - the work of composer Stephen Sondheim defies all laws of genres, director Zack Winokur says. In his vision, A little night music is therefore much more than the light comedy for which the work has often been mistaken. "This is all about desire."
The clarinet already heralds the drama while lawyer Fredrik is declaring his love. His monologue ends with the statement that he is not going to opt for her after all. Once actress Desirée realises this, the song begins in earnest. 'Isn't it rich? Are we a pair?' she sing-says: the first lines of 'Send in the clowns', the greatest hit Sondheim ever wrote.
This is, director Zack Winokur (29) states, exactly what thecomposer means when he says that in his musicals 'something is only sung when it cannot be said.' "This scene completely ensues from the point at which situation and text meet. Together they make the spoken word flow into a song." In such a refined way that, as a spectator, you hardly notice it.
Searching for a reason
What a good thing it would be, Winokur argues, if thequestion: 'Why is this sung?' is asked more often. "There simply has to be a motive. That is what directing is all about for me: not just taking a leap into the dark, but searching for a reason." Typical of Sondheim is, according to Winokur, that he offers ample freedom for this search. "The flexibility is enormous. The way he makes everything interact, you need air in every nook and cranny of the piece for that, to make new things happen." He smiles, almost tender. "Sondheim is a master story teller. Everything that makes good lyrics also determines the quality of an opera. At first sight, simple poetry lines that, once you turn them into a song, become the best thing that has ever been written."
The unconventional work of Sondheim is, Winokur claims, in fact neither opera nor musical. "Sondheim creates his own genre. And this piece requires you to draw from all possible sources, to tell a story that you cannot escape from." It fits the young director, who was originally trained as a dancer and choreographer, like a glove. He likes to stretch the concept of opera to its very limits and devotes all possible means to this purpose. He also does this as the leader of his own American Modern Opera Company. Whereas opera is often seen as the art form that unites disciplines, Winokur prefers to send sparks flying: "Opera is a medium within which disciplines collide and transform each other."
Merry-go-round of urges
The common opinion that A little night music is a comedy about rich people who engage in naughty pleasures is not Winokur's thing, in any case. "This is not about sex, but about desire. Fulfilled and unfulfilled." Protagonist is the actress Desirée Armfeldt, who was never short of men, but finds out that lawyer Fredrik Egerman is the only man she has ever loved. She want him back and invites him and his young wife- along with some other people who serve as a cover - to the house of her mother, the former courtesan Madame Armfeldt. This results in a merry-go-round of urges and affairs.
Whereas the piece by Sondheim and dialogue author Hugh Wheeler was loosely based on the romantic comic film 'Smile of a Summer Night' by Ingmar Bergman (1955), Winokur intensively studied his Swedish colleague. "When I saw the film, I came to understand the piece better," Zack Winokursays. "Bergman was obsessed by Mozart, and he may well have had Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in mind. In this case as well, with all entanglements, the servants are the only ones who are still in control. They are the only ones who have not lost touch with reality."
What especially struck Winokur in Bergman's film: "The setting is totally Victorian, but at the same time, the story and the characters are so very much of today. The way they struggle with sex and morality and their own human feelings. The power of this story lies in the contrast between what is public and what is private, and the discomfort that results from this. You see civilised people, but undisguised moral issues such as we also know nowadays are at stake." The director gives this a form that makes the tension tangible as well, by creating a big red velvet space on the stage that can be folded and expanded into various 'rooms'.
"Wealth and entrapment, they are both present here." What he wants to investigate during the rehearsal stage is how he can add more 'real time'. "A lot is happening off stage in the story. Someone leaves the stage and returns a changed person. Maybe I will show more of this parallel story on stage."
The hard way
One thing is certain: the one smile from the title of Bergman'sfilm is in fact three smiles, as the old madame Armfeldt herself explains in A little night music. "Every smile represents a stage of life," Winokur says. With the characters as exponents. Youthful innocence, represented by Frederika Armfeldt. The wisdom, learnt the hard way, of her middle-aged mother Desirée. And grandmother Armfeldt as the finiteness incarnate, with death as the only escape. Zack Winokur: "Desirée is the one who struggles most with the transition to another stage of life. Anyway, I like her struggle very much. Basically, it is the struggle to connect with other people."
With 'Send in the clowns' as the grand finale. "Just when she thinks that luck is smiling back at her as she has finally managed to win back her old love Fredrik, all of a sudden she sees crystal clear what she really has ended up with." Her life has been turned into a farce. Even though she sings about that moment in theatrical words, many people will recognise it, Winokur thinks. "You thought that you had an idea of how your life works, and suddenly something happens that completely changes your outlook."
There is still plenty to laugh about. But the director feels that the manner in which merriment always makes way for seriousness gives the piece its great force. "Good comedy needs sincerity. If you cannot connect with it, it will never become funny."
Photo credit by Ingrid Bosman