Although it was enormously popular in its day and many of its songs have remained standards ever since (“I’ll See You Again, ” “Tara-Ra-Boom-De-Ay”), Noel Coward’s “Bitter Sweet” is so unlike anything else that he ever wrote that most of its rare revivals have been left to opera houses. It is a true operetta, written after Coward had encountered “Die Fledermaus” and very much trying to evoke a similar world from a British point of view. But what is most surprising is that despite a handful of funny moments—most notably the campy “We All Wear a Green Carnation,” which is often cited as the first hidden use of the term “gay” as a synonym for homosexual (this was 1929, mind you)—“Bitter Sweet” is an unabashedly sentimental love story told via flashbacks that wears its musical heart on its sleeve. The resources of Light Opera Works are ideal for such a work and, in fact, this is the company’s second revival, having done it before in 1991. Veteran director James Harms makes sure that the action of its three acts moves along swiftly and fight choreographer Kevin Asselin ensures realism in the heartbreaking second-act duel, but it is soprano Alicia Berneche, best remembered for her Lyric Opera portrayal of Daisy alongside the recently departed Jerry Hadley in “The Great Gatsby,” who steals the show with singing and acting that movingly spans generations (think if old and young Rose in “Titanic” could sing her heart out). The one drawback was the decision to place the full orchestra at the back of the stage behind scenery where most of the sound ends up in the wings instead of the house, and the distracting use of a second faux conductor for scenes where the orchestra is playing a dance band. (Dennis Polkow)
“Bitter Sweet” runs at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson (at Sheridan), Evanston, (847)869-6300, through August 26. $28-$80.