The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Friday 30 September 2016, St James Theatre, Wellington
NZ Opera production
Director: Stuart Maunder
Conductor: Benjamin Northey
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
Sweeney Todd was nihilistic, brutal, horrifying, suspenseful – a voyeur view on an urban myth – and a marvellous musical and theatrical experience.
Sweeney Todd: Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Mrs Lovett: Antoinette Halloran
Anthony Hope: James Benjamin Rodgers
Johanna: Amelia Berry
Tobias Ragg: Joel Granger
Judge Turpin: Phillip Rhodes
Beadle Bamford: Andrew Glover
Beggar Woman: Helen Medlyn
Adolfo Pirelli: Robert Tucker
Jonas Fogg: James Ioelu
Ensemble: Cameron Barclay, Stuart Coats, Declan Cudd, Barbara Graham, Elisabeth Harris, David Holmes, Morag McDowell, Chris McRae, Catherine Reaburn, Emma Sloman, Imogen Thirlwall
Production Designer: Roger Kirk
Lighting Designer: Philip Lethlean
Head of Wigs & Makeup: Charlie Oswin
Head of Wardrobe: Elizabeth Whiting
Audio Designer: Jim Atkins
Set & Props Construction: Show Works Creative Solutions – Australia
Sweeney Todd is a marvellous musical and theatrical experience and it was commendable that NZ Opera mounted this production. The vocal expertise was evident in everyone on the stage and the production values were first rate. Right from the outset – the organ solo and the lighting evocative of a Sherlock Holmes’s and Jack the Ripper’s foggy London – the operatic Musical Thriller was in place.
I noted that the Ballad of Sweeney Todd prologue was voiced with the principals as well as the ensemble. In fact, the Ballad bookends the show – the Prologue, the En’tracte and the close of the show, and several times in between too. It is an interesting device: breaking the fourth wall to involve the audience.
It was unusual to have the voices amplified – for NZOpera particularly. Operatic voices are generally acoustic and their technique overcomes the orchestral sonorities. But, usually, the libretto is secondary to the beauty of vocal qualities. I have seen articles that the comprehension of the audiences of French, English, Italian operas is about 30-40%. Most of the audience don’t understand the words – even from native speakers of their languages – and the words and plot are familiar anyway!
But Sondheim is a master of the English language. His words are paramount to understanding the plot, the cognisance, and the humour for the songs. There is no surtitles – obviously – and the rapidity of the words, and the lack of repetition (not like Mozart or Rossini!) makes it vital to understand the phrases.
Unfortunately, that was a compromise. Microphone technology has gone a long way and the mini-microphones on the cheek or a forehead was unobtrusive, but they can’t convey the resonance and the richness of the full vocal range. It was like having headphones on – not the fullness of the acoustic operatic sound. I get it – the audience HAVE to comprehend the words, but it was a compromise.
Sondheim the librettist was marvellous. He employed the paradigm of meaningful surnames: Anthony ‘Hope’, Tobias ‘Ragg’ (ragamuffin), Jonas ‘Fogg’ (foggy mental processes). His alliteration, assonance, and his rhyming schemes are superb. Often Sondheim breaks the form of the arias and chorus too – a spoken line transforms into a song: Pretty Women for example, or mixing other songs together: eg. Kiss Me or mixing the perception of the message: Beautiful and My Friends with Sweeney and Mrs Lovett. And his ‘Have A Little Priest‘ is a masterpiece of black humour.
Sondheim the musician buried indications in the score: for example, the Ballad for Sweeney Todd was based on the prayer Dies Irae, and the bass of the pie shop Yum Yum chorus is identical to the Humming Chorus of Madame Butterfly. He explored the range of the voices from basso profundo to falsetto soprano, imitating the scream of the factory whistle: Sweeney, Sweeeeeneeeey, Sweeeeeeneeeeey!
[When I mention these characters, I am speaking about their voices as well as their portrayals.]
Teddy Tahu Rhodes was very impressive – almost too much! His resonant voice, amplified, was reminiscent of James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader for the uninitiated). His long slide into to insanity culminated with the ‘They All Deserve to Die‘ and his anguished cry of ‘I’m alive at last an I’m full of joy!!!‘ was a chilling reminder of his mentally-unstable state.
Antoinette Halloran was perfect as Mrs Lovett. Her artful manipulation of Sweeney was impeccable – basically a Lady MacBeth (and she suffers the same fate too). At times her voice was a little too brassy and loud for comfort – but it was in character too, I guess.
James Rodgers was excellent at the innocent, optimistic sailor and Amelia Berry was a (almost) untainted, virtuous maid on the cusp of her womanhood. Phillip Rhodes and Andrew Glover were an insidious, corruptive presence on the stage. I was reminded that Phillip was Scarpia in Tosca, but his Judge Turpin was actually more vile! The comic turn of Robert Tucker as Pirelli was welcome and Joel Granger was naive boy, debased by his association with the main characters.
I think the worst thing in the play was the betrayal of the purity of Toby’s ‘Nothing’s gonna harm you‘ by Mrs Lovett and Sweeney Todd. Judge Turpin was lustful, Beadle Bamford was evil, Pirelli was avaricious – but Mrs Lovett and Sweeney Todd were amoral. They didn’t care about the boy.
The Ensemble was superb. They accomplished their roles assuredly: from towns-people to pie-loving shoppers, from ball-gown partyists to lunatics.
But the standout performance was Helen Medlyn as the Beggar Woman (Lucy). Her schizophrenic range of acting – capering, grovelling, debauching, pleading, beseeching … with a voice to match every mood – was a marvel to behold.
The orchestra – a minimal, chamber-opera-pit orchestra – led by Benjamin Northey was magnificent. They didn’t put a foot wrong – balancing out the dynamics and the ebb and flow of the opera’s mood perfectly.
The wigs and the costumes were perfect and the direction and the lighting was excellent. I like the up-lights on the ensemble when they had a recap of the Ballad – reminiscent of spooky stories at the campfire. I didn’t know what to make about the witnesses of the Judge’s Mea Culpa scene? Maybe it was a indiction that the truth will come out? Everything will be revealed?
Sweeney Todd is a ‘Musical Thriller’. No-one, except Anthony Hope, was unscathed at the end: Sweeney insane, Mrs Lovett undone, Tobias deranged, Lucy crazy, the rest dead. Even the defiled Johanna – she murdered Jonas Fogg after all. Sweeney Todd was nihilistic, brutal, horrifying, suspenseful – a voyeur view on an urban myth – and a marvellous musical and theatrical experience.