Opera North – Sweeney Todd (7th June)

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd – Steven Page
Mrs Lovett – Beverley Klein
Anthony – Daniel Broad
Johanna – Anna-Clare Monk
Tobias – Christopher Saunders
Judge Turpin – Malcolm Rivers
Pirelli – Stuart Kale
Beggar Woman – Gillian Kirkpatrick
Beadle – Stephen Briggs
Jonas Fogg – Paul Wade

Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North conducted by James Holmes

Director – David McVicar
Co-Director & Choreographer – Jonathan Butterell
Set Designer – Michael Vale
Costume Designer – Kevin Knight
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Sound Designer – Roland Higham

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 7 June, 2002
Venue: Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

Given Stephen Sondheim’s apparent dislike for opera, it is perhaps ironic that his most overtly operatic work – and some would argue his best – should have become one of his most popular and found its place in the repertory of many opera companies around the world. Bryn Terfel, no less, is to assume the title role in Chicago later this year.

Opera North has brought to London a quite riveting production with no weak links in the cast and provocative direction from David McVicar. The setting and general mood was even darker – if that were possible – than the original production by Harold Prince, with the laughs gradually becoming more nervous as the evening progressed. The stage is dominated by a huge wooden wheel set in motion at crucial points in the drama, suggesting to this viewer a grim wheel of fate or destiny.

Steven Page portrays a viciously angry Todd without descending into a rant or unmusical yell; that horrible moment of musical irony, when he dispatches victim after victim to a ravishing melody, was unbearably moving yet awful.

One of the extraordinary things about this work is its astonishingability to portray unspeakably dark characters with twisted motives into believable people with whom one can sympathise – in spite of oneself. Sweeney Todd himself is an almost Rigoletto-like figure in his need for vengeance. Like Verdi’s character, one can understand Todd’s desire for revenge, and his final lament over his wife whom he has unwittingly murdered was terribly poignant.

Todd’s partner-in-crime, Mrs Lovett, was compellingly played by Beverley Klein who erased any comparisons with the role’s creator Angela Lansbury. Klein really had this ultimately tragic character down to a tee, and her relish of words made her opening number a veritable tour-de-force of characterisation. The final duet of Act One – where thoughts of the various customers to be made into pies are set to an infectious Tchaikovskian waltz – was both hilarious and disturbing.

All the other members of the cast are well suited to their parts.Daniel Broad’s singing of the song ’Johanna’ had all the requisite Puccini-esque passion, whilst as the girl herself, Anna-Clare Monk was the picture of innocence with a lovely voice to match.

One very interesting aspect of the production was the inclusion of the nearly always omitted song for the Judge in which he flagellates himself whilst watching Johanna through a keyhole. Here, a young man hired for the purpose delivered the whipping – it was a gripping scene, with Malcolm Rivers displaying the tortured mind of the Judge to perfection.

This is, quite simply, an excellent production and makes one admire afresh the power of this remarkable piece of music-theatre.

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