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The Buxton Festival has always had opera at its heart. Now it has extended its reach with its first musical, and its first direct partnership with Buxton Opera House, the Festival's home since the beginning. With Opera House Chief Executive Paul Kerryson directing and music-theatre old hand Wyn Davies conducting, the new collaboration is launched in great style with a magical production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.
The most Mozartian of Sondheim's musicals (as the title suggests), it was a natural choice. Based on Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night, it is set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Sweden, and follows the tangled relationships between actress Desirée Armfeldt, her old flame, lawyer Fredrik Egerman, and his new not-quite-child bride Anne, among others. The design team of Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick Smith surround the set with tall, slender trunks of birch trees – natural surroundings, yes, but also suggesting a cage?
As the figure around whom all this revolves, Janie Dee's Desirée commands the stage without unduly dominating it. David Leonard's Fredrik is perhaps a little too much of a hedonist, but the two of them play well to each other's strengths. These unexpectedly reunited ex-lovers are clearly ready to carry on from where they left off. But there's the underlying sense of aching regret - so much of the show concerns regrets and memories - and the rueful self-realisations of 'Send in the Clowns' rightly forms the emotional climax.
Gabrielle Drake gives Desirée's elderly mother Madame Armfeldt a crusty exterior, rehearsing her long-ago affairs, and instructing her granddaughter, Fredrika, in the ways of the world but, somewhere underneath, also a heart, to which Fredrika – a fresh, eager Julia Mariko Smith – readily responds.
As Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desirée's current lover, Tim Walton keeps his conceit within credible bounds. The Act 2 duet 'It would have been wonderful', for him and Fredrik, is an excruciatingly embarrassing (for them) and funny (for us) picture of two oversized male egos prowling suspiciously round each other.
Carl-Magnus' wife, Charlotte, has heartache of her own (most of it due to his behaviour), and in 'Every Day a little Death' Sarah Ingram lays it bare just enough to gain Anne's (and our) sympathy.
Elsewhere, Daniella Sicari shows a sparky side to Anne's character (a Desirée in the making?), chattering merrily away as Fredrik voices his irritation with her seeming indifference to his sexual needs in 'Now'.
Molly Lynch gives Desirée's maid, Petra, an unquenchable urge to grab life with both hands and 'celebrate what passes by', as she sings in 'The Miller's Son'. It's a gift of a number; she picks it up and doesn't just run with it, she positively flies.
Then there's the grit in the oyster – Henrik, Fredrik's son, a combustible mixture of uptight, intense trainee Lutheran pastor and teenage sexual frustration. Matthew McKinney nails both aspects of a character at odds with just about everyone.
As the 'Liebeslieder', the chorus that raises the curtain on the show and comments from time to time, Joseph Doody, Rachel Speirs, Sarah Prestwidge, Olivia Tringham and Emyr Lloyd Jones move and sing both as one and as five individuals.
Using Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations, the Festival's house band the Northern Chamber Orchestra slips readily into Broadway mode. Wyn Davies knows exactly when to keep things taut and when to give the singers enough latitude. 'A Weekend in the Country', one of the most brilliant Act I finales in the business, gets an immaculate performance in terms of both physical and musical ensemble.
This new departure for Buxton receives the best possible send-off with this production, a perfect blend of sparkle, edge and poignancy.
Copyright © 14 July 2021