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Sondheim, Sweeney Todd: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Youth Opera, Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 10.7.2009 (GPu)

Conductor/Musical Director: Fergus Sheil
Director: Pete Harris
Movement Director: Ayse Tashkiran
Designer: Max Jones
Lighting Designer: Elanor Higgins
Vocal Specialist: Miriam Bowen
Repetiteur: Dan Perkin>

Sweeney Todd/Benjamin Barker: Tim Nelson
Mrs Nellie Lovett: Lucy Phillips
Anthony Hope: Chris Jacobson
Johanna Barker: Emily Griffiths
Judge Turpin: Steffan Jones
Adolfo Pirelli/Danny O’Higgins: Michael Riseley
Beadle Bamford: Sion Owen
Tobias Ragg: Ben Francis
Lucy Barker/Beggar Woman: Shoshana Pavett
Jonas Fogg: Hywel Dowsell

The series of summer productions by Welsh National Youth Opera has set itself high standards over the years – and yet again all concerned lived up to them in this version of Sondheim’s sophisticated musical. Played on an open stage, with a raised walkway around it accessible to the cast, and with seating on three sides, the performance area gave scope for plenty of rapid movement and for the creation of varied stage pictures - rarely static for long. The two percussionists of the ensemble were visible on an elevated platform at the back of the stage, the rest of the ensemble (which totalled only ten) in a small orchestra pit at the front of the stage; the interplay of voices and instruments, and the balance between them was generally very well handled, Fergus Sheil’s conducting ensuring vocal audibility throughout. Thanks to some accomplished individual performances, the energy and hard work of the chorus and plenty of intelligent directorial touches, the audience was treated to a thoroughly engaging evening’s theatre.

How clever some of the rhyming is – Byron would have loved it: “see that man with hair like Shelley’s / You can tell he’s used Pirelli’s” sings the vendor of fake hair-restorer.  Sondheim’s music and libretto explore the perception that both comedy and tragedy, in essence, depend on exploitation of an audience’s different, but related, reactions to excess. This production happily occupied the border territory between those complementary excesses, full of (im)properly black humour but also endued with a sense of the tragic machinery that underlies Sweeney’s obsessive quest for vengeful satisfaction and the different kind of social tragedy embodied in figures such as the Beggar Woman (Lucy Barker) as well as the disintegration of social mores that generates an amoral survival instinct such as that of Mrs Lovett. Sondheim’s work is a kind of Jacobean revenge-tragedy transposed to Victorian London and explored through a distinctly twentieth-century musical language.

Tim Nelson was a very convincing Sweeney, imposing in physique and looking older than his years, so that the story of his fifteen years exile and subsequent return had an immediate dramatic plausibility to it. A member of the male-voice choir Only Men Aloud! (winners of the BBC competition Last Choir Standing), Nelson was well able to handle the vocal requirements of the part and was a commanding stage presence. Lucy Phillips, currently studying for a BA in English and Drama in Cardiff, was a feisty Mrs Lovett, her performance wholly plausible as a characterisation and her singing full of gusto and humour - even if her cockney accent rather came and went! As Judge Turpin, Steffan Jones never entirely overcame the problem of his obvious youth in a role which needs him to be a believable antagonist to Sweeney, an antagonist central to the history of Sweeney and his family; but that was hardly the singer’s fault, and it would be unfair to criticise him for it. Fairer to praise – deservedly – his vocal contributions, which were assured and often powerful. As the Judge’s sidekick, Beadle Bamford, Sion Owen was a figure of oleaginous sycophancy and moments of appropriate menace. As the obligatory pair of young lovers which such a dramatic scheme requires, Emily Griffiths and Chris Jacobson were well-matched, the one beautiful, the other handsome, and both very decent singers – Emily Griffiths’ soprano voice being particularly pleasing. Michael Riseley gave a delightful cameo performance as Danny O’Higgins, initially disguised as Adolfo Pirelli, the gaudy Italian barber. In the Italianate aspect of his role, Risely interpreted very pleasantly the passages of operatic pastiche in Sondheim’s writing for the character. Shoshana Pavett was an appropriately disturbing presence as the mad beggar woman and Ben Francis made a more plausible Tobias Ragg than some I have seen, inhabiting the role with a fair certainty of touch.

The chorus were exemplary in their contributions, both vocally and in terms of their movement in crowd scenes, full of a kind of desperate animation, the bursts of manic energy and contrasting stillness the product of lives lived close to the boundaries of poverty and starvation, with madness and social affectation evidently close cousins too. The ten-strong instrumental ensemble played Sondheim’s intriguing score with panache and vibrancy, relishing the unexpected harmonies and the moments of contrapuntal complexity, all clearly benefiting from the obvious understanding of experienced conductor Fergus Sheil.

Sondheim once described Sweeney Todd as a “black operetta” – which seems a pretty good way of describing it, its grand guignol stylised into the conventions of a ‘safe’ genre, with the horror and the sense of safety constantly destabilising one another in a (theatrically and musically) stimulating fashion. The tonal balance was well achieved here – the coming together of madness, murder and innocent love at the work’s conclusion worked particularly well and made for a properly unsettling conclusion to the evening. There have been far more lavish productions of Sweeney Todd which have had less to say about the work – and have said their less without so much panache and enthusiasm.

Glyn Pursglove

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