The Royal Opera – Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd – Thomas Allen
Anthony Hope – William Dazeley
Beggar Woman – Rosalind Plowright
Mrs Lovett – Felicity Palmer
Johanna – Rebecca Evans
Judge Turpin – Jonathan Veira
Tobias Ragg – Doug Jones
Pirelli – Bonaventura Bottone
The Beadle – Paul Arden-Griffith
Jonas Fogg – Matthew Rose

The Royal Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Paul Gemignani

Director – Neil Armfield
Sets – Brian Thomson
Costumes – Tess Schofield
Original Lighting – Rory Dempster, realised by Mark Howett
Movement Director – Denni Sayers

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 1 January, 2004
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

This co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago brings a piece conceived for the Broadway stage to the Royal Opera’s repertoire for the first time. But as John Snelson’s intelligent article in the programme points out, Sondheim’s ’Musical Thriller’ (the composer’s own subtitle) is not so easily pigeonholed, and the undoubted ’operatic’ qualities inherent in the score and the work as a whole have earned it a place on the stages of many opera houses, with interpretations of the leading roles being given by opera singers.

Bryn Terfel led the cast of Neil Armfield’s production in Chicago in November 2002. The setting was stark, possibly suggesting the inside of an asylum, with movable bars and white curtains framing the central playing-area whose borders were constantly prowled around by what appeared to be warders. Indeed the final image, of Todd alone in his chair, pinpointed by a bright light, suggested nothing less than the final frame of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, or as if the whole terrifying drama had been re-lived in the protagonist’s mind.

So there was plenty of fluidity possible in and between the numerous scenes, but the filth and squalor of Victorian London were largely left to the imagination. The ROH cast, on paper, was a strong and distinguished one, led by Thomas Allen giving what must have been one of his darkest and most grim portrayals. He was dour and unsmiling throughout (thus rather contradicting one of the lines in the libretto: “He seldom laughed but he often smiled”), but on his initial appearance he bore a striking resemblance to ’Grandpa’ from “The Munsters”. However, he avoided any suggestion of send-up, and delivered Sondheim’s lines with considerable conviction. The more lyrical passages, such as “Pretty Women”, were mellifluously, even seductively, sung, but he had strength enough for the powerful “Epiphany” towards the end of Act One, though I regretted the omission of a few bars of orchestral music following his final top note. His lower register was not so strong. If in the final analysis, Mr Allen is too personable to be totally creditable as a vengeful murderer, he had clearly thought very deeply about the role; his integrity and conviction carried the day.

As Mrs Lovett, the pie-maker who has harboured a passion for Todd, and who becomes his partner-in-crime, Felicity Palmer did not, sadly, always avoid the impression of a Pantomime Dame. Perhaps it was a case of ’trying too hard’, but whatever the case, Mrs Lovett’s character was in danger of becoming a caricature some of the time, strongly though the part was sung. Palmer certainly had the requisite patter for her numbers, and moved dextrously, but there were too many moments when this was an irritating, rather than a loveable, rogue.

She also took her last phrase of the first act up an octave, which was incongruous in the context, though she and Allen made, overall, a convincing double-act here and throughout.

The remainder of the cast was fine. I prefer a brighter, more tenor-like timbre for Anthony than William Dazeley’s baritone commands, but he was engaging and sang his apostrophe to Johanna most movingly.Rebecca Evans, as Anthony’s would-be lover and Todd’s daughter, had exactly the right qualities for this part, negotiating the coloratura effectively, though she was not happy with some of the tempos Paul Gemignani set. Her “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” was unnecessarily hustled, and Evans would evidently have preferred a more relaxed speed.

Jonathan Veira was appropriately menacing and, standing in for an indisposed Robert Tear, Paul Arden-Griffith presented an aptly oily Beadle. Rosalind Plowright made much of the Beggar Woman – her rich mezzo arguably too ample for this particular role – and Bonaventura Bottone was dynamic as the “quasi Italian” Pirelli, his bright tenor being ideal for this bravura part. It was a pity that the “tooth-pulling” verse was omitted from his song – Bottone would have done it proud. In the other tenor role, Tobias Ragg found an exceptionally sensitive interpreter in Doug Jones, whose singing of “Not while I’m around’ was quite touching and I was not surprised to read that his roles include Bernstein’s Candide and David in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. He brought the same care to Tobias that such parts demand.

The cast was amplified. I’m not sure that this was really necessary, especially as the sound was, frankly, rather tinny and unflattering at times. And did we need surtitles, even in the dialogue? Whilst this is now a fait accompli in operas in a ’foreign’ tongue, it is nonsensical when the language is in the vernacular and the cast’s diction is clear – which it was here. Besides which, the device cannot cope with ensembles and we surely go to the theatre to engage with the performers and the drama, not to read, and certainly not to ’anticipate’ funny lines before they occur.

It may seem heretical to criticise conductor Paul Gemignani, the doyen of over 35 Broadway shows and, indeed, the first musical director for Sweeney Todd in 1979, but I found his direction to be rather phlegmatic. To be sure, he kept the show on the rails with moderate efficiency (though this was not an entirely blemish-free performance), but he was overly hasty in places, and there were more than a few instances of ragged ensemble. I would suggest that there is more poetry and dynamism in this score than Gemignani is willing, or perhaps able, to reveal.

It was good to hear the Royal Opera House Orchestra revelling in Jonathan Tunick’s masterly orchestrations, with the strings soaring most expressively, but the tentative moments were due to the direction, and I can imagine they might play with even greater response in different circumstances. The full chorus was generally secure, with some smaller ensembles displaying the high quality of individual voices.

Whatever reservations there may be about this production, or its execution, it is good to have the opportunity to savour Sondheim’s masterpiece in this setting. Whatever it may be – opera, musical, or some as-yet-unnamed hybrid – Sweeney Todd packs a mighty punch as a slice of intense and compelling music-drama.

  • Remaining performances: January 3rd (at 12.30 p.m.), and 6th, 9th & 14th at 7.30 p.m.
  • Royal Opera

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