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Works of Bergman and Sondheim come together in film and music Dec. 30 at The Smith

The works of two masters of 20th century film and musical theater are showcased at the Smith Opera House on Sunday, Dec. 30.

The late Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” will be screened at 2 p.m., and Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “A Little Night Music,” whose story was based on the movie, will be performed by Opera Ithaca at 8 p.m. Opera Ithaca’s intimate concert version of “A Little Night Music” features piano accompaniment and minimal staging, costumes and props. This is the second year that the professional opera company has performed on New Year’s Eve weekend at The Smith.

Both the movie and the musical dive into the messy and unfulfilled romantic lives of an upper class Swedish clan in 1900. Among them, a middle-aged lawyer, Fredrik, his young virgin wife Anne and his religiously repressed son, Henrik; a has-been actress, Desiree, as well as her contemplative teenage daughter, Fredrika, and reflective mother, Madame Armfeldt; a possessive military dragoon, Carl-Magnus, and his drunken wife, Charlotte, and for good measure, a maid and manservant, Petra and Frid. Their misdirected passions, infidelities and frustrations seem to spin hilariously out of control at a party hosted by Madame Armfeldt, thrown on the peak of Swedish summer, a time of year when the sun never sets.

For Bergman, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this past summer (he died in 2007), the film was his first successful foray into comedy. Released in 1955 when he was already a decade into serious film making, “Smiles of a Summer Night” was his breakout work, winning a special prize at the 1956 Cannes International Film Festival and ushering him onto the world stage. (“The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries” soon followed.) That “Smiles of a Summer Night” shares elements of an opera narrative is no surprise—Bergman regularly directed theater and opera throughout his career.

Two men and a woman are in a parlor in a scene in Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night.

A scene from Smiles of a Summer Night.

Meanwhile Sondheim, back in the early 1970s, was looking for a storyline that spanned no more than a weekend in a single location, and had Greek elements included. Several films were considered, but he chose Bergman’s “Smiles” because, as Bergman told The Guardian in a 2003 profile, it had “the notion of the summer night, in which it is light all the time, so that there is always the promise of sex, but it never quite gets there because the sun never sets.”

Bergman agreed to the adaptation, but only if another title was chosen–so Sondheim borrowed a translation of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” (There was a one-time exception made for the show’s Vienna run.) “A Little Night Music” opened on Broadway in 1973 and became one of Sondheim’s longest running musicals, and its iconic song, “Send in the Clowns,” became a commercial best-seller as sung by Judy Collins, Frank Sinatra and countless others.

Sondheim, now 88, summarized “A Little Night Music” as a work about “flirtation, the wasting of time and the manipulation of people.”

Ron Loyd plays Fredrik in Opera Ithaca’s A Little Night Music.

Baritone Ron Loyd, who stars as Fredrik in Opera Ithaca’s production, says Sondheim shed some of the darker elements that rippled through the surface humor of Bergman’s film. As to what Opera Ithaca’s concert version, directed by Norm Johnson and conducted by Richard Montgomery, will add to “A Little Night Music,” Loyd describes it this way:

“Our specific production is going to be done in a way that is intimate enough that you can get all the story lines and nuisances and gems that you may not get in a grand opera scale. Because it’s done in an opera setting, with opera singers and musicians, it is not an amplified experience as in a more typical musical theater setting. So that lends a different tonality in away. You get richer experience of voice, of projection, of an energy that is different.”

As a musical with a fair amount of spoken dialogue (written in this case by Hugh Wheeler), “A Little Night Music” is a book show that has increasingly become a crossover work for opera companies to take on, says Loyd.

“Once you grasp your character as a singer, it forms the character as a speaker and actor. Speaking on stage is like singing, anway, but with speaking, you have the opportunity to make your own pace and pitches and levels. How you bring your voice up or down–it’s very musical. I think of it as a form of melody, in a way,” he adds.

Loyd also believes “A Little Night Music’s” melodies, written in variations of 3/4  time with lots of word play, will engage the audience as much as it has engaged the cast. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people walk out singing some of the bigger themes.”

—Karen Miltner