Some opera lovers protest at opera houses’ ongoing penchant for putting on Broadway shows. I am not among them. For one thing, I’m a fan of pretty much all forms of music theater. For another, I bristle at the idea that all opera is automatically high art, while all Broadway shows are some lower populist form.
Can you really claim that the eminently populist “The Barber of Seville” is a greater work of art than Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”? Given a choice between seeing “The Barber of Seville” for the 100th time and Sondheim, I’ll almost always pick the Sondheim, which is why I found myself driving to the Castleton Festival on Friday night, navigating the country roads that lead to Lorin Maazel’s 600-acre estate, to see “A Little Night Music” rather than one of the festival’s two operas.
I was perfectly prepared to be as beguiled by “A Little Night Music” as I have been in the past by other offerings at a festival that used to specialize in charming productions of unusual works. One difference, to be sure, is that the Sondheim was an apprentice production — a presentation of the cutely dubbed Castleton Artist Training Seminar, a.k.a. CATS, which is the festival’s effort to offset its tendency to hemorrhage money by finding young singers willing to pay for the privilege of working with Maazel and his staff. But I was philosophically in sympathy with the idea of Dietlinde Maazel, the maestro’s actress wife, that it would do young opera singers good to be exposed to theater acting. And I was raring to defend Broadway’s right to take its place at the festival table.
However, after the show started with a blast of amplification, breaking over me from one side of the stage like a bucket of cold water, and after we had labored through the first 15 minutes, I found myself struggling to keep my seat on my high horse. Listening to the young opera singers work their way through the start of the show with a community-theater flair, I started to find the music and artful lyrics cheap, as if I were one of the opera purists against whom I thought I was setting myself up.
This “A Little Night Music” had a number of factors working against it. Castleton took on the signal challenge of mounting the show with two completely different casts, and the recent storms cut into rehearsal time — both significant factors when you’re talking about relatively green singers working in an area outside their specialty. Indeed, the idea that you can throw together something as complicated as “A Little Night Music” with a less-experienced cast actually does imply that you think of musicals as occupying a place lower than opera on the music-theater food chain. The implicit idea that musicals represent a lighthearted, easy departure mars a lot of opera-house stagings of them: Musicals are not merely a less-evolved or degenerate form of opera but a whole different animal, requiring equally careful tending in order to flourish. (Witness the attention to detail and the superb performances in Arena Stage’s 2010 production of “Oklahoma!”)
I’m sure everyone worked like crazy to bring off this production of “A Little Night Music,” but the work showed, and musical comedy does not thrive by being applied, like medicine, to help cure young singers of the habits that ail them. It wasn’t clear, moreover, that the habits were being entirely cured. I heard a lot of stilted, histrionic declamation of lines, although Dorothy Danner, the director, may well have done yeoman’s work to get even to this point.
I found it even more alarming that some of the young singers utterly abandoned their vocal technique when offered the artificial support of amplification. If you listen to the great Broadway artists of the past, you hear people who knew how to sing, with vocal support and excellent diction: John Raitt, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin. Today, when musicals are almost always amplified, Broadway singers don’t need to worry about being heard, but you’d think a cast of young opera singers would have been able to evoke the Golden Age rather than try desperately to conform to the contemporary norm, with breathy delivery of unsupported sound.
I wonder if this year’s CATS performers felt they were getting their money’s worth, putting so much energy into mounting a production in which Maazel did not appear to figure, and in which the leads were taken by non-CATS Castleton veterans (Julia Hardin as an attractive Desiree Armfeldt and Valerie Nelson in a show-stealing turn as a beautiful, elegantly sung Madame Armfeldt, as well as Darik Knutsen as an underwhelming Fredrik Egerman). They were certainly a talented and eager bunch, and by the Act I finale everyone had warmed up enough to bring some energy and spark to “A Weekend in the Country.” I liked the mezzo Amanda Fink, as the Countess, and Conor McDonald, in spite of the caricatured direction of his role as the Count.
And the singers in the Quintet, and some of the servants, contributed to the evening’s strongest moment: At the start of Act II, they came in front of the curtain and sang the introduction with no amplification at all. I understand that mikes helped the cast to project over the big orchestra, and to get the spoken dialogue across, but this production would have been a lot more charming, and a lot more in line with Castleton’s former standards, if everyone had worked together to figure out how to manage without them.