“Cowards die many times before their deaths,” somebody says in Julius Caesar. But our time has changed all that. Today, at least if a Coward is a noted dramatic author, he’s more likely to die many times after his death, at the hands of stupid directors. And so it fell out with the Bard Summerscape Festival’s production of Noel Coward’s rarely seen “operette,” Bitter Sweet (Fisher Center, through August 14).
The multitalented Coward (1899-1973) wrote, composed, and staged this lavish, lushly romantic work in 1929. Premiered on the brink of the Depression, it looks back over the barrier of an earlier worldwide upheaval to tell a simple, sentimental tale of true love versus late-Victorian prudery, in a tone, half sardonic and half nostalgic, that exactly matches its title. Sarah (Sarah Miller), a proper young English girl, throws over her stuffed-shirt fiancé, eloping with her music teacher, Carl Linden (William Ferguson), a composer of great melodic passion and minimal worldly goods.
While they scramble for their living, he conducting in a seedy Viennese cabaret where she works as a paid dancing partner, she unluckily attracts an arrogant Imperial Army officer (Joshua Jeremiah). A duel results, in which Carl is killed. 1891 finds Sarah back in England as “Madame Sari Linden,” the definitive interpreter of her late husband’s now-celebrated songs, doted on by the wealthy Lord Shayne (Ryan Speakman), a sympathetic aesthete. Framing the story, a prologue and epilogue show her as the elderly but still vivacious Lady Shayne (Siân Phillips), recounting her life to a young girl similarly caught between a stuffy fiancé and a scruffy bandleader.
The textbook clarity of this story presents no problems. Cannily, Coward balances its heart-tugging obviousness against a string of typically Cowardian diversions: bit players who set time, place, and atmosphere while trading comic repartee; transitional choruses of servants or party guests who hold your attention during set changes. A pivotal secondary figure, the worldly-wise cabaret singer Manon (Amanda Squittieri), gets several numbers, including the famous one that’s often thought of as Coward’s personal credo, “If Love Were All.”
Even in a time as cynical as ours about heart-on-the-sleeve passion, Bitter Sweet would probably be revived much more often if Coward hadn’t conceived it on an old-style grand scale that even opera houses generally can no longer afford: It demands a large cast of top-quality singer-actors, with chorus and orchestra to match, plus elaborate designs running the gamut from 1875 to 1929. Above all, it requires affection for its various period styles, allied to a precision of attack that catches the significant points in each.
In 1929, Bitter Sweet had all this poured on it by the two most notoriously free-spending producers of its era, C.B. Cochran in London and Ziegfeld in New York. Bard’s revival, understandably on a tighter budget, unwisely solved its economic problems by throwing away both lavishness and accuracy of detail. Director Michael Gieleta stupidly updated the action, moving the stuffy London society of 1875 to 1929, and shifting the 1929 frame story down to 1969. This neatly made every attitude the characters struck seem absurdly dated, an effect Gieleta worsened by tampering with the musical sequence: “Green Carnation,” meant to set the tone of 1891, looked ludicrous as a Vienna cabaret number circa 1929. (And Christopher Caines’s choreography cluttered the comic numbers with movement, visually drowning out Coward’s gemlike lyrics.) Jack Parton’s reduced orchestration, well handled under James Bagwell’s baton, sounded elegant enough to seem a constant rebuke to the muddle onstage.
Though Gregory Gale’s costumes gracefully evoked Gieleta’s inappropriate periods, Adrian W. Jones’s icky peach-colored set, with its vast bare walls and giant double doors, dwarfed the action instead of framing it. The cast, a mix of professionals and students, opera singers and actors, seemed largely adrift, alternately flailing their arms to indicate emotion or conveying none at all. Phillips, though woefully inaccurate of pitch, offered a welcome touch of class; Speakman acquitted himself with dignity; Squittieri, largely misdirected, nonetheless made something of her showpieces. The diction, sluggish throughout, would have made Coward scream with fury. Ferguson and Miller mostly looked, and sometimes sounded, unhappy; the limp applause after numbers showed that the audience shared the feeling.