Is it true, as Stephen Sondheim insists, that mostly audience expectations dictate whether a work is to be experienced as an opera or a musical? When pushed, however, he is equally adamant that his Sweeney Todd was squarely conceived as a musical. Well, Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, Francesca Zambello, and the entire ensemble involved in the production this summer have presented a darn good case that Sondheim’s deliciously dark work can be a trifle “bent,” or, if you will, appreciated freshly and even more fully as a crossover work.
As conductor John DeMain took the podium, he was greeted by the rat-a-tat-tat of bows on music stands, a rare sign of respect and appreciation coming from the orchestra players. It was a deep pleasure to feel how DeMain led the orchestra and singers alike throughout the evening with a genuine respect and sure understanding of both composer’s intentions and musicians’ and singers’ needs.
Most especially, the acoustic production demonstrated how a singer can ride and not wrestle with Sondheim’s lyrics. Sondheim’s style always includes racing music that drives a volley of words full of quips and internal rhymes. This is certainly true in Sweeney Todd. I’ve lost a lot of his clever words in other productions I’ve seen, including watching Angela Lansbury in the role of Mrs. Lovett. It’s true that that production was housed in an enormous and less forgiving space. But, also true, in the fast exchanges and “patter songs,” particularly of Mrs. Lovett and Mr. Todd, the cranked-up amplification and heavy orchestrations drowned out most of the text.
Director Christopher Alden focused the musical in other ways. First, he threw out whatever monstrous sets are usually associated with the depiction of a Dickensian London that inevitably drowns out the action with some lumping two-storied charnel house depicting the strange and gory barbershop-cum-meat-pie business of Lovett & Todd. Instead, Alden opted to set the piece in a contemporary, largely empty municipal or church meeting hall, demarcated by two great walls that come together at an angle, with a posse of straight-backed chairs. In this space, an odd lot of characters gather to act out an old melodrama, seen through the lens of the nineteen-sixties, with a couple of mini-skirts and Carnaby Street suits driving home the director’s conceptual perspective.
Doing away with heavy, dark buildings, smoke and gaslights of nineteenth century London dissipated some of what Sondheim swears he was going for: to deliver a scary story. The tone in this production was less a psychological thriller than a mash-up, at times a comedic take on old melodramatic and music hall styles. But the style worked as a story-within-a-story framework.
Alden’s walls reminded me of another production’s use of walls (and someone in the audience verified that Alden’s brother had used giant moving walls most effectively in his tight psychological production of Lucia di Lammermoor at Washington National Opera a few years ago.) This set of “the Alden Brothers’ walls,” designed by Andrew Cavanaugh Holland, helped deliver the show’s success. As the massive walls pressed forward, they forced the action downstage which in turn boosted the presence of the singers’ voices. Specifically, it helped technically solve some Sondheim quirkiness. (The composer loves to match natural speaking as much as possible in setting sung passages, and while many of us adore the man’s theatrical naturalism of his scores, this often means setting an English unaccented second syllable to a dropped lower note out of the sweet spot of a singer’s range.) Alden and DeMain have helped singers as best as possible, but even at Glimmerglass, some of the trickiest passages got muffled.
What is to be gained by presenting a musical at Glimmerglass each season?
For one, a musical draws an operatic name to a “star” opportunity in the “vanity” excitement of a musical and anchors a fine cast of singers. For another, it provides a great way for journeymen singers in the festival’s Young Artists Program to learn the specialized skills needed in a musical, including the energetically ramped-up wattage of spoken dialogue. In this case, the show also requires dialect coaching in order to represent British class structure of mid-nineteenth century London. The practice increases the capacity to hear and produce mimicry needed for multi-linguistic language skills, key in operatic careers.
For a company that has made its central mission to develop and retain new and younger audiences for opera and music-theatre, producing a popular musical guarantees a box office draw. Looking around, Glimmerglass seems to be succeeding in growing a new crop of supporters and “new ears.”
For me, the most important audience benefit of producing a big musical with an operatic company is to enhance the experience of listening to the distinctions, power, and beauty of the unamplified voice. In the case of Sweeney Todd, the production also puts the focus on Sondheim’s gorgeous musical architecture.
On the night I saw the show, a ripple of excitement had gone through the house with the announcement that the person who was covering the leading female role of Mrs. Lovett, Molly Jane Hill, had to step in for the original singer, who had discovered that she couldn’t possibly sing twice in one day. (Even the best and strongest opera singers stand both aghast and in awe of Broadway singers who stand up to the demands of an 8- or 10- performance week.) Hill was terrific. The mezzo-soprano brought maturity and an authority to the role that belied her years and experience and wasn’t afraid to color her operatic trained voice to serve the character. Her acting was both specific and funny. Her Mrs. Lovett could be manipulative as the role demanded, but she drew the audience in to sympathize with her too as she discovered both a romantic and unlikely business partner.
Greer Grimsley tore passion to threads in the role of Sweeney Todd. He never shied away from pulling out the stops as the blatantly melodramatic production demanded. He was striking as the vengeful Sweeney. The singer masters both the sinister and sympathetic, and his voice builds to convey both rage and heartbreaking intensity.
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
closes August 26, 2016
Details and tickets
Emily Pogorelc played the ingénue role of Johanna, Sweeney Todd’s lost little girl, who was being kept as ward by the villain Judge Turpin. The sexualization of this little caged adolescent girl is easily the most squeamish part of the work for me. This production, which cast the actress looking about twelve years old and dolled up in a provocative short pink skirt, strengthened this element of the story further and brought to mind contemporary sick abductions of young girls who have been kept for years as sex slaves. Pogorelc’s frail body stole my heart. When she sang the popular “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” she walked in a circle on top of seats of chairs, just like a bird hopping around inside her cage, and her voice was so purely childlike, the moment was exceptionally effective.
Easily the most beautiful singing of the evening came with tenor Harry Greenleaf, in the young romantic lead singing Sondheim’s gorgeous melodic writing of “Johanna.” The director knew instinctively that the piece needed no embellishments or stage business and let Greenleaf to stand and sing it in simple stillness so that we could all revel in its beauty.
There were other moments of terrific singing. Sondheim had some fun setting a spoof on Italian tenor singing, and Christopher Bozeka as the greasy showman Pirelli brought a knowing chuckle from this opera-savvy audience which recognized their form’s excesses. Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin pulls off a monstrous melodramatic villain by fulfilling a realistic portrayal of a pervert. I thought Nicholas Nestorak was a curious choice for the role of Tobias, usually played by a young boy, but the singer’s sensitive shaping of the song “Nothing is Going to Harm You” won me over. Bille Bruley as the Beadle had great fun with the silly mock-up of an Irish folk tune. The entire ensemble and orchestra demonstrated how much fun Sondheim had playing with such a variety of musical styles.
I must also mention an unforgettable little theatrical turn, quite original to this production, of a certain man playing a “char” woman, complete with ugly tie shoes and a blue rubber gloves. In this cast within a cast, he was given the role of throwing a bucket of blood on the walls as everyone froze in a melodramatic still. It solved, in this single-story set, how to indicate the victims’ ends. It cemented the director’s conceptual style. Instead of gasping in horror, the audience howled with laughter and appreciated all the more the story-telling aspects in the production. The anonymous ensemble member reminded us that we were meant to be watching a bunch of community players enthusiastically putting on a show. It puts a whole new spin on grand guignol.
The chilling “dies ire” anthem of the chorus singing “Swing your razor wide, Sweeney, raise it to the skies” has never been sung so powerfully. But for the most part, this Sweeney Todd is both original and funny. Well played!
Sweeney Todd. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Based on a play by Christopher Bond. Conducted by John DeMain. Stage Direction by Christopher Alden. Sets by Andrew Cavanaugh Holland. Costumes by Terese Wadden. Lighting by Robert Wierzel. Featuring Christopher Bozeka, Bille Bruley, Harry Greenleaf, Greer Grimsley, Nicholas Nestorak, Emily Pogorelc, Patricia Schuman, Peter Volpe, and the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus. Produced by Glimmerglass Festival. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.