VANCOUVER OPERA: THE CHILL OF SWEENEY TODD

Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler, SWEENEY TODD, Greer Grimsley (Sweeney Todd/ BenjaminBarker), Luretta Bybee (Mrs. Lovett), Rocco Rupulo (Anthony Hope), Caitlin Wood (Johanna), Pascal Charbonneau (Tobias Ragg), Doug McNaughton (Judge Turpin), conducted by Jonathan Darlington; directed by Kim Collier, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, May 2, 2015

How dark is dark? Sweeney Todd is as dark as it gets. It is about vengeance, one of themost primal and savage of human urges. But it takes a moral turn, showing how vengeance can backfire and redound on its perpetrator. So, the audience thrills to tragedy. It is also about the destruction of innocence, one of the most disturbing of moral events. The marriage of Benjamin Barker (later, Sweeney Todd) and his young wife is destroyed by the dissolute Judge Turpin, who sends Barker to a penal colony, rapes his wife, and adopts and holds Barker’s daughter captive. The innocence of the daughter, Johanna, is destroyed by this theft of her childhood, her enforced confinement in a madhouse, and her later discovery of her father’s monstrous acts as a serial killer. Mrs. Lovett’s boy employee, Toby, is driven mad by learning her ghastly secret and her intent to murder him, when she has apparently loved him like a mother. So, the audience thrills to depravity.  Finally, Sweeney Todd is about extreme violence and the breaking of taboo—throat slashing and cannibalism. So, the audience thrills to Grand Guignol.

And all this is sung! I suppose this should come as no surprise. Opera teaches us you can sing about anything, though singing a tender song about your lost daughter while you slash throats is taking it about as far as it can go, perhaps too far. There is something strange and unhealthy about this work. It reveals the merciless hypocrisy of society, and takes us to our darkest places—calling up pity and fear, as tragedy should, but also delectation, a smacking of the lips over the macabre. It makes for great theatre but is it great drama? As an audience member, you feel a little as though you are enjoying a hanging, but should you feel exalted or ashamed of yourself?  Whatever the answer, Sweeney Todd is a ghoulish piece indeed—and a very powerful stage work.

Powerful because of the tragic side of the story. We see Todd move inexorably toward the destruction of everything he holds dear—his wife and his hope of a relationship with his daughter—for the sake of an obsession with vengeance. Mrs. Lovett, if not tragic, proves a poignant figure despite her amorality. She longs for a normal life, or as normal as she would be capable of. She wants love, which Sweeney is unable to give to her, and grows more desperate as he comes closer to his goal. Tragic irony is used to great effect, as in the number ‘Not while I’m around,’ during which Mrs. Lovett, singing a song of loving protection with Toby, decides to murder him.

Also powerful because of the brilliance of the score. Sondheim is especially skilled at word setting, music and words forming a seamless dramatic conjunction. He is one of the few contemporary composers who knows how to write recitative and his numbers are excellent, making use of a diatonicism riddled with dissonance. They are also distinguished by biting irony, which puts a sting even in the sweetest of his melodies, such as the tribute to women sung by Todd and Judge Turpin. The libretto is dazzling, with some of the cleverest word-choice and wordplay in opera, almost every twist of phrase bringing home the dark satire of the story. The most memorable number—‘A Little Priest’ (the list of pies)—is savagely funny.

Vancouver Opera put imaginative effort into realizing the work on stage. Much of this effort went toward the set. The logic of the action of Sweeney Todd is a three-level stage—Todd’s upstairs barber shop, Mrs. Lovett’s ground level pie shop, and the basement, where the grisly business of the pie-making goes on and to which the bodies from Todd’s ingenious barber chair-chute make their horrific descent. The VO team decided to make this procedure visible, and so turned the pit into the basement and the main set a two-story three-dimensional rectangular frame, moveable both in terms of forward/backward and revolving motion, representing the other two levels. Since this is the opera’s most salient visual gimmick, the effort was justified and the device well used otherwise, providing multi-angled locations for the upstairs sequences, from the judge’s house to the Todd-Lovett establishment. What of the displaced orchestra? Given that Jonathan Tunick’s distinctive orchestration makes it another character, with its sinister mutterings on the action, it seemed suitably present, and its placing upstage in the darkness underneath the rotating machine suitably disturbing. 

What of the updating from Victorian London to contemporary Every City? Updating seems to be de rigueur in productions these days, part of the mandate for ownership of the work. In the Director’s Notes, Kim Collier’s tells us that 2015 is fitting, given the schism between the haves and have-nots that obtains today.  Nonetheless, a significant part of the cultural resonance at the core of the story’s meaning is seemingly sacrificed. While there may be a division between rich and poor in the 21st century (when hasn’t there been?), the seaminess and dark criminality, fear, smell and squalor of the streets of Victorian London are somehow integral to the fabric of Sweeney Todd

 All photos by Tim Matheson

All photos by Tim Matheson

But the direction and movement overall were good. Kim Collier and Wendy Gorling had the set and characters moving in ways that made sense and enhanced the drama, with fluid interaction between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’. As for the cast, Greer Grimsley’s Sweeney Todd was well sung (heroically well sung, we might add, given the problems he was having with his voice throughout the run), though his playing of the part was stiff. In his spoken sections he relied on declamation rather than the naturalness of someone in conversation, and remained an actor, not a character. Luretta Bybee, in comparison, was much more natural, playing Mrs. Lovett as a broad comic character, realistic in singing and speaking. Playing Mrs. Lovett is always a matter of choices, and Ms. Bybee was a delight, if she lacked some of the pathos that can be found in the role. Pascal Charbonneau as Toby played the part well and winningly, providing an appropriate object for Mrs. Lovett’s tenderness, which turns out to be a sentimentality she is willing to discard when her relationship with Todd is threatened.

As for the rest of the cast, Caitlin Wood was a convincingly youthful Johanna and Rocco Rudolpho an ardent Anthony Hope. Though he sang well, Doug MacNaughton proved rather characterless as the Judge, conveying little sense of menace, though he managed pomposity rather better. More convincing was Michael Barrett as Beadle Bamford, playing him as an enthusiastic sycophant, and taking great delight in his big duet, ‘Parlor Songs’.  Karen Ydenberg was excellent as Beggar woman-Mrs. Barker, singing and acting with equal commitment. Also outstanding was David Curry as Pirelli-O’Higgins, playing his small part with suitable ham and providing the opera with one of its cheerier moments. The chorus acquitted themselves well, playing their vital roles as commentators and participants incisively. 

All told, Vancouver Opera provided us with a rousing account of a brilliant and disturbing theatrical work. 

© Harvey De Roo 2015

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