Finally, Bliss

May 15, 2010 at 12:23 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

I finally watched the 1990 New York City Opera performance of A Little Night Music (from Live at Lincoln Center). I promised myself this treat after watching the dismal 1978 movie with Elizabeth Taylor. It’s so much better.

The cast is great; I enjoyed all the acting and singing. Frederick (George Lee Andrews) and Desiree (Sally Ann Howes, who I will always think of as Truly Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) have great chemistry and are charming and witty together. I really enjoy the give and take between them. 

Beverly Lambert plays Frederick’s virginal wife Anne as a complete airbrain, which fits the part. Desiree’s lover/dragoon Carl-Magnus Malcolm (played by Michael Maguire) really seems to have a brain the size of a pea, as Desiree describes him to Frederick. I also enjoy Petra, the lusty maid (played by Susan Terry) and Desiree’s worldly and insightful mother, Madame Arnfeldt, played by Regina Resnik.

Ironically, a weak spot for me in this production is the “Send in the Clowns” scene. During the intermission, there is an interview with Stephen Sondheim explaining that song. He did not originally include it in the score. When the production was in rehearsal (for the 1973 original Broadway show), director Hal Prince called Sondheim and asked him to write a song for Desiree. Sondheim did not want to because he felt that particular scene belonged to Frederick. Prince explained his reasoning, talked it over with Sondheim, and Sondheim wrote the song in two days. Sondheim explains:

“It was never meant to be a soaring ballad. It’s a song of regret. It’s a song of a lady who is too upset and too angry to speak (meaning to sing) for a very long time. She is furious, but she doesn’t want to make a scene in front of Frederick because she recognizes that his obsession with his 18-year-old wife is unbreakable. So she gives up. So it’s a song of regret and anger.”

Then the video shows Sally Ann Howes working on phrasing with musical director Paul Gemignani. You get the feeling that she really understands the purpose of the lyrics and how to make it work.

So, when the scene between Frederick and Desiree comes up in the second act, I have some expectations. Howes lets me down. She sings it with a beautiful voice. But it’s too much about the beauty of her voice and not enough about the emotion of the scene. I want pain and anguish, sadness and anger there. I want her to be about to cry and barely able to spit out the words. That sounds awful, but that’s what the song needs. The lyric “Isn’t it bliss?” is filled with bitter irony. I think that Judi Dench does it right… the catch in her voice, the sadness.

Anyway, that’s the only thing that didn’t work for me in this production. This is a really enjoyable version of A Little Night Music; the show works well on the stage and it’s much better than the Elizabeth Taylor movie version. Unfortunately, the 1990 Lincoln Center production is not on Netflix. There are DVDs available, or you can watch it in pieces on YouTube.

As I explained in my earlier posts, this show is not directly Shakespearean. It is a musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s wonderful film Smiles of a Summer Night. Bergman was inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and there are shared themes. Smiles of a Summer Night also inspired Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

If you want my viewing suggestions, watch Bergman’s film first, then the 1990 musical, think about skipping Woody Allen, and don’t even consider the Elizabeth Taylor movie.

I think this will be my final post related to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unless someone has another movie suggestion or comment from the text, I’m about ready to move on to Much Ado About Nothing. Read it with me!

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Isn’t it Bliss?

April 7, 2010 at 11:46 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Isn’t it bliss? Not really. I feel a bit let down. That’s what happens when I build things up in my mind. I’d seen A Little Night Music with Elizabeth Taylor as Desiree back when it originally came out in 1978. I was a kid and I think I went with my mom and sister. I remember loving it. I’ve seen the play performed and enjoyed it.  I thought I would really like watching it this time around, knowing now that it is a musical remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, which I loved.

I was mistaken. Watching the two films so closely together was a huge mistake. The Bergman film is superior in just about every way. It’s funnier, more charming, more poignant. Comparing them side by side is painful.

And that’s unfortunate, because Stephen Sondheim’s score is beautiful and the play works well on the stage. For one, I really can’t stand Elizabeth Taylor in this film. Her simpering, squeaky voice is annoying and she doesn’t do the songs any favors. Even so, I still enjoyed “Send in the Clowns.” It’s an incredible song and it fits into the story perfectly. It’s really kind of breathtaking. (I just found a great version on YouTube with Judi Dench who plays Desiree in the London production. It’s such a heartbreaking moment in the play and the song is so incredible.)

I liked some of the performances in this film. Len Cariou is good as Frederick Egerman (he was nominated for a Tony for this role in the original Broadway production). He’s better in the romantic role than the unattractive Gunnar Björnstrand in the Bergman film. I also liked Diana Rigg’s performance as Charlotte (the wife of Desiree’s lover).

A Little Night Music is playing now on Broadway with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree and Angela Lansbury as her mother. I would love to catch this and remind myself of what a wonderful play it is, but unfortunately, the review in the Washington Post was entitled, “‘Music’ in the key of blah” so I guess I shouldn’t get my hopes up about this version, either. I need to get the bad taste out of my mouth, so I’m going to find the 1990 Lincoln Center version which got good reviews!

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Smiling on Bergman’s White Night

April 6, 2010 at 10:59 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

I think I might have enjoyed Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy a little more if I’d watched it after seeing Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. This was the inspiration for Allen’s film, and Bergman was inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was easier to see the progression once I’d watched Bergman’s film.

Smiles of a Summer Night is delightful. It begins a bit slowly, but it builds and the second half is wonderful. Really, I think if I had the time to watch it again I’d get a lot more out of it. It’s a really nice film with some very funny moments. In my opinion, it’s much better than the Woody Allen film.

It takes place in Sweden in the early 1900s. The taciturn Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand) is married to the extremely young and lovely Anne (Ulla Jacobsson). Complications abound in every direction. Fredrik and Anne have been married for two years, but have not yet had sex. Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), a former mistress of Fredrik’s, comes to town, and seeing her again fans the old flames for both of them.

However, Desiree is having an affair with the jealous Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle). Malcolm’s wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist) is, in turn, very jealous of Desiree and wants her husband to herself. Meanwhile Fredrik’s angst-filled son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) is sowing a few wild oats with the lusty maid Petra (Harriet Andersson) while peering at his step-mom Anne with puppy dog eyes. Oh what a tangled web!

Desiree decides she wants to marry Fredrik (who may or may not be the father of her child) and she hatches a plan for her elderly mother to invite everyone for an overnight party at her country house. There is a pivotal dinner scene where Desiree seats everyone according to her plan. A little magic enters into the movie here, as Desiree’s mother tells a legend about the magical properties of the wine they are drinking. Each person seems to have something specific on their mind as they drink down the wine.

Well, if you got through all that, believe me, it’s not that complicated to keep track of while you’re watching. And it’s all pretty funny. There are some great scenes, like one where Count Malcolm makes Fredrik go home in his borrowed nightshirt. I think the funniest scene involves the trick bed that moves back and forth between rooms. It comes in pretty handy, let me tell you! And adding another comic element is the maid Petra who spends a lusty night under the midnight sun with Frid (Åke Fridell).

I liked that this film revolves around the female characters—they are much more likable than the male characters, and they move the plot forward. I also thought they were drop-dead gorgeous and the evening gowns they wear (even in black and white) are incredible.

This film is not directly Shakespearean, but it’s not hard to see how it was inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the changing partners, the fickleness, the magic night. This is a very watchable film. It’s available on Netflix (streaming and DVD) in Swedish with English subtitles.

I finished reading through the text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream a couple days ago. I want to read it a second time before I begin commenting on it. I also have several more film versions in my queue to watch. If you have any film recommendations, be sure to let me know.

Also, note that I added some photos to my Tom Hanks post, courtesy of the Great Lakes Theater Festival.

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