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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Sondheim: Sweeney Todd: various artists, Guildford School of Acting Conservatoire, Maida Vale Singers, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Stephen Barlow (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London 6.07.07 (JPr)

‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few have trod
did Sweeney Todd
the demon barber of Fleet Street.
He kept a shop in London town.
Of fancy clients and good renown
and what if none of their souls were saved
they went to their maker impeccably shaved.
By Sweeney,
by Sweeney Todd
the demon barber of Fleet Street.‘

Long before Jack the Ripper, there was the legend of ‘the demon barber of Fleet Street’, the murdering barber who dispatched his customers with a flick of the razor and then had his lover serve up the remains in a tasty meat pie. Many people encountering the tale take it for just that – a legend. To get to the musical as we now have it, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics, and playwright Hugh Wheeler, adapted an earlier work by Bond, who had sourced an even earlier melodrama by George Dibdin-Pitt. This had its foundation in a contemporary account of Todd's arrest, trial and execution. Bond claimed that while Fleet Street was the home of many unstable and unsavoury characters down the years, ‘no one has ever succeeded in finding a shred of evidence as to the existence of a demon barber thereabouts’ but apparently there was a mad barber who really did skilfully use a razor and a trapdoor to rob and kill his customers with most ending up as filling for meat pies. That is almost another story entirely because what Sondheim’s musical gives us is a fictionalised account of that Sweeney Todd.

Debate rages as to whether this is an oratorio-opera or a musical. I took my seat in the Royal Festival Hall to the right of a mammoth sound desk with banks of speakers hanging from the ceiling on an impressive (new?) lighting gantry. I wondered, with the crystalline new acoustics of this auditorium why singers, even from the background of musical theatre needed amplifying? I am reliably informed that Sondheim insists on it for this work though I have not been able to find a definitive quote as yet. The lyrics are often quite intricate and the scoring is quite Psycho-like and filmic at times, but trained singers from opera or musicals with a professional chorus should be able to be heard against an orchestra, as here, of less than 40. The amplification was certainly not needed for the Sweeney here, Bryn Terfel and, as it was, seemed a little inadequate for Maria Friedman’s Mrs Lovett, not capturing all the words of her patter songs. However I assume the miking was important for the live recording CD release that will surely be on offer soon.

Musically Sondheim’s score (subjected to cuts here) does seem quite complex and there is an interesting use of Leitmotifs and different vocal styles for differing characters. It inhabits the worlds of Lulu, Wozzeck and Grimes and if it wasn’t for the typical musical convenience of a foreshortened Act II where having dwelt at length to establish character and motivation in Act I, all comes to a bloody conclusion with undue haste. This is not unique to Sweeney Todd though, and is a conceit of many musicals that the audience having refreshed themselves during the interval do not want to be detained too long before heading home.

Those with a well-tuned musical ear for ‘where did Lloyd-Webber get his music from?’ will recognise a snatch of melody from the character Anthony Hope’s ‘Johanna’ in ‘All I ask of you’ from Phantom. What is it they say about imitation?

The constant alliterative rhyming in the lyrics of certain characters did pale after a while. This is hinted at in the lines above from the ‘Ballad’ above. But others I remember are ‘dark … lark’, ‘captive … adaptive’, ‘elixir … in a tick sir’, ‘thrift, gift, drift’, butter, flutter, utter’ and ‘coriander … gravy grander’ – you get the feeling there was some ‘bottom of barrel’ scraping going on here at times just for effect.

At the time of talking to Edward Seckerson for a South Bank podcast(!), Bryn Terfel seemed under the impression that he was going to involved in a concert version of Sweeney Todd and in the over-priced programme praises this because ‘The public can see and hear everything. There’s nothing to hide behind – no sets, no chairs, no tables – it’s all about the music.’ Somewhere along the way plans were changed because here we had a semi-staging by David Freeman, famed for his crowd-pleasing arena productions at the Royal Albert Hall. He brought all this experience to bear on moving his artists onto, off, around and down from the performing space. This was more involving than could be expected from a stage devoid of real sets, with just a few stools, chairs and tables often draped in black that were Dan Potra’s designs. What costumes there were those were black too, and certainly Bryn Terfel brought his own black rehearsal garb with him. The orchestra were squeezed into a quarter of the platform stage right. As Mrs Lovett busied herself with her ‘respectable business’ wearing bloodied marigolds, she mimicked the trap door by collecting Sweeney Todd’s victims on a tea trolley, looking a bit like Julie Walters’s Mrs Overall.

Maria Friedman was quite superb as Mrs Lovett, a chilling characterisation of evil ordinariness. She seemed a doll-like refugee from ‘Whatever happened to Baby Jane’ in Act I but seemed a bit overwhelmed by the hectic stage business in Act II. She is a consummate singing-actor and this is a part she was born to play.

Bryn Terfel was a great ‘everyman’, someone who rails at the world for the misfortunes it has brought him. Can I be the first to suggest that – stunt casting apart – he could vocally be a wonderful Peter Grimes. He is a big man, statuesque and therefore not a very flexible actor (why this might be comes from that podcast with mention of successive back operations). I wasn’t too sure at the start and he seemed out of place surrounded by better character actors than himself but in the end from his vengeful ‘Epiphany’ onwards at the end of Act I when he roamed among the audience he convinced me of his lust for vengeance.

Before hearing this performance there were only two songs I really knew; Mrs Lovett’s ‘The worst pies in London’ and ‘Not while I’m around’ and Daniel Evans’s rendition of the latter as the gormless Tobias was a highlight of the evening. Philip Quast as Judge Turpin seems to have suffered the most from the scissors and was (as a result?) rather two-dimensional. Emma Williams trilled away prettily as Johanna and Adrian Thompson lent his considerable tenor top notes and comic gifts to Pirelli. Rosemary Ashe overdid the cockney a bit as the Beggar Woman, but Steve Elias was a well-realized Beadle. As the lovelorn Anthony, Daniel Boys came fresh from exposure in the BBC’s Any Dream Will Do and sang limpidly yet winningly so was not out of place amongst many more experienced colleagues.

The ensemble was provided by the willing Guildford School of Acting Conservatoire and the chorus was the Maida Vale Singers, the musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra were admirably led by the conductor Stephen Barlow who seemed to have just the right appreciation for the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ epic pretensions of this Grand Guignol musical masterpiece, beloved – as is most of Sondheim oeuvre – more by the critics than audiences … except when Bryn Terfel is in the cast and you can expect to sell-out three performances!

© Jim Pritchard


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