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Bittersweet

Date: Thu April 16, 2009 4:00pm

The word “operetta” sounds like what it is: opera lite. The story may be tragic but the treatment will be light, if you can imagine that. You are not invited to dwell long in tragedy; neither are you permitted to escape from the sadness — not altogether. And when the composer of the operetta, in this case the aptly named Bitter Sweet, is Noël Coward, that English master of wit and sentiment, you are in the hands of a craftsman, who will pass you ever so gently from tears to smiles and back again.

If you are not familiar with Coward’s work, now is the time to become acquainted. If you’re clever and persistent, you might even be able to find a few albums in which he sings his songs, which is an experience not to be missed. Every word, clearly enunciated, is suffused with that light-hearted yet heart-piercing sentiment (some would say, sentimentality; I wouldn’t) that you also find in his films (for example, Brief Encounter and This Happy Breed). Yes: actor, singer (of sorts), playwright (Private Lives, Blithe Spirit), composer, and bon vivant. When asked for his notion of the ideal life, he answered, “Mine.”

The songs in Bitter Sweet are beautifully singable. For a singer that is like honey to the vocal cords. And the emotions are immediately accessible. There has never been a song more filled with longing than “I’ll See You Again,” in waltz time, sung first as a duet by the main characters, a singer and her singing teacher, and later reprised, each time with an appropriate change in the lyrics. Sarah, the singer, leaves her fiancé, a stodgy young man who would make her rich but not happy, on the eve of their marriage. With Carl, her singing teacher, whom she loves, Sarah (later called Sari) is poor but, yes, happy and eternally in love, until tragedy — and it is every bit as tragic as the “operatic” stabbing of Carmen by her lover, Don Jose — robs her of her only love.

Sari appears in the operetta first as an old woman, practiced in the ways of the world, and wealthy from a second marriage to a nobleman. In a flashback, which was quite an unusual technique for 1929, she is once again a young woman, about to be married to a man she does not love, and the story of her elopement and subsequent misfortune unfolds from there, ending, as it began, with Sari as an old woman, still remembering her love.

In true musical theater fashion, the characters speak much of the time, breaking into song when they can’t help it, or when there is something so deep, they must express it in music. Bitter Sweet is a seamless, thoroughly satisfying work. The dialogue flows, and the songs emerge effortlessly from it.

With Lamplighters Music Theatre, the wonderful San Francisco Gilbert & Sullivan company, now in its 56th season, the production will be in good hands. It stars the excellent singers Jane Erwin Hammett and Baker Peeples, with the estimable Jennifer Ashworth and William Neely in featured roles. Prepare to smile through your tears. Or weep through your smiles.

Stephanie Friedman, mezzo-soprano, is retired from more than three decades of singing in opera and concerts in the U.S. and abroad.