“A Little Night Music”

Opera: “A Little Night Music”

Group: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road

Dates: June 9, 11, 15, 17, 19

Tickets: From $25 to $117; contact 314-961-0644 or www.experienceopera.org

Story: Successful attorney Fredrik Egerman has married the beautiful, 19-year-old Anne to provide comfort for the middle-aged widower, but after 11 months the nervous Anne is still a virgin. The frustrated Fredrik learns that his former lover, renowned actress Desiree Armfeldt, has returned to their small Swedish village to perform in a play, and takes Anne to see her show. Fredrik quickly reignites his flame of passion for the beautiful actress, who returns the favor, even though he is married and she is carrying on with a loutish married military officer named Count Malcolm.

The Count is insanely jealous of Desiree while at the same time brooking no thoughts of his attractive wife, Countess Charlotte, being admired by any other man. When Desiree invites Fredrik, his wife and his brooding, seminarian son Henrik to a weekend at her wealthy mother’s estate, the Count foists himself and his frustrated wife upon proceedings to make sure everything goes his way. With the varied guests gathered at her home, Madame Armfeldt instructs her granddaughter Fredrika that the summer night will “smile” three times upon various lovers.

Highlights: Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, which is based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” has a lyrical, operatic lilt to it that fits well within a light opera framework, as evidenced by past productions by the New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Opera Australia, Los Angeles Opera and others. Now, America’s pre-eminent living musical theater artist is being honored in his 80th year with a stylish version of this funny, poignant and innately human work that is conceived and directed by famous fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. Making his directorial debut, Mizrahi’s interpretation of the imposing Sondheim musical, which includes an accessible book by Hugh Wheeler, is whimsical, witty and as warm as the midnight sun at the turn of 20th century Sweden.

Other Info: Taking his cue from Bergman’s memorable movie and the title’s resemblance to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Mizrahi sets the entire proceedings in a lovely glen on the Armsfeldt estate, even the indoor scenes. He introduces the show’s Lieberslieder Singers (its Greek chorus) in the guise of nymphs and fairies, dressed halfway as patrician sorts and halfway as ephemeral creatures. It’s an odd but effective device that not only explains certain scenes but also allows for a solid supporting cast to regale the audience with their own considerable vocal talents.

Mizrahi’s lavish set is framed by a series of impressive old trees, which serve not just as backdrop but also as perches for various nymphs to observe the action of the humans as the latter play out their foibles. The director also provides exquisite wardrobes for the affluent sorts. Everything is illuminated beautifully by Michael Chybowski’s lighting, most especially on the poignant ballad, “Send in the Clowns.”

While Sondheim didn’t especially write the roles of Desiree and Madame Armfeldt for singers, it’s still a bit jarring to hear Amy Irving and Sian Phillips, respectively, essentially enunciate their tunes rather than actually sing them, including Irving’s delivery of the affecting “Clowns” to Desiree’s love, Fredrik. Still, both are such accomplished actresses that this results in minor quibbling. Phillips delivers Madame Armfeldt’s stinging zingers with polished aplomb, while Irving looks and plays the role of a beautiful woman taking a determined stab at true love.

The best performer, though, is Erin Holland. As Charlotte, her mezzo-soprano fills the auditorium with its rich, vibrant color as successfully as her deadpan comic style captures the long-suffering Countess’ frustration with her philandering husband. Ron Raines is quite solid as the dapper Fredrik with his pleasing baritone, while soprano Amanda Squitieri blends her beautiful voice and impish comic style handsomely with Christopher Dylan Herbert’s self-punishing Henrik, who lusts after his youthful stepmother.

Lee Gregory’s full, deep baritone makes the oafish, insufferable Count at least bearable on such outrageous numbers as “In Praise of Women,” while Candra Savage delights as the earthy, ribald servant Petra, most notably on the affecting ballad, “The Miller’s Son.” Vivian Krich-Brinton is delightful as youthful Fredrika,) Matthew Lau is humorous as Madame Armfeldt’s meticulous butler and Aaron Agulay, Lauren Jelenkovich, Corinne Winters, Mark Van Arsdale and Laura Wilde are impressive as the Chorus.

Sondheim’s complex melodies are never easy to master, but his lyrics are a sophisticated romp for an appreciative audience, especially when the music is so lovingly handled as is the case with conductor Stephen Lord and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Everyone involved, in fact, seems to be having a most engaging time under Mizrahi’s inspired guidance.

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.