A Disappointing Mismatch of Musical and Opera in Sweeney Todd

12/10/2015

Sondheim, Sweeney Todd: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera / James Holmes (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 8.10.2015. (LJ).

Cast:
Sweeney Todd: David Arnsperger
Mrs Lovett: Janis Kelly
Anthony Hope: Jamie Muscato
Johanna Barker: Soraya Mafi
Beggar Woman: Charlotte Page
Judge Turpin: Steven Page
Beadle Bamford: Aled Hall
Tobias Ragg: George Ure
Pirelli: Paul Charles Clarke
Jonas Fogg: George Newton-Fitzgerald

Production:
Director: James Brining
Designer: Colin Richmond
Lighting Designer: Chris Davey
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin

David Arnsperger (Sweeney Todd) and Company © Johan Persson

Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, more musical than opera, wowed musical lovers and disappointed opera lovers. Described as being ‘funny, terrifying, and moving’, this work of the late 1970s would be aptly described as ‘absurd, provocative, and one-note’. Touching upon incest, gang rape, prostitution, mental-illness, and psychopathic behaviour, Sweeney Todd was loud and blatant in its excessively politicised content. These themes were not subtly portrayed; they were brashly spot-lit and pushed centre-stage. A tale about ‘the demon barber of Fleet Street’ (as the WNO chorus triumphantly sung) was rather more like a summary of the Daily Mail’s news headlines. Its dialogue was at times amusing and at others embarrassingly corny. In particular, Sweeney Todd’s exaltation ‘now my arm is complete again’ as he held his razor like a warrior his sword, sounded naff. Its critique of London was the most successful part of the show as Mr. Todd frequently sung about how the city is ‘turning beauty into filth and greed’. This was supplemented by Mrs Lovett’s oft repeated sentiment that ‘times is ‘ard’. This Orwellian tale of being down and out in London was portrayed with unflinching determination, and for this, the cast must be complimented. Despite the simplistic dialogue and monotonous melodies, the cast managed to carry a rather thin story to its conclusion.

With a forbidden love story and unsettling scene in a mental asylum, the tale of Sweeney Todd ventured into Shakespearean extremes, though lacked any of the playwright’s wit and intelligence. A recurring alarm bell that marked either trouble or death was at first effective, though its persistence, wore thin towards the end of the second half. This is an apt metaphor for the work at large. The melodramatic shooting of the warden of the mental asylum was also an unnecessary extra in an already action-packed scene. To put it lightly, ketchup was not spared on the set of this bloodthirsty show. Consequently, often, what was added in Sweeney Todd took away from the intended effect. A tale of revenge for Judge Turpin’s ill-deeds was turned into a frantic comic-horror.

Paul Charles Clarke (Pirelli), George Ure (Tobias Ragg) & WNO Chorus © Johan Persson

Colin Richmond’s design was of the deconstructivist mode, and provided, in a contemporary sense, a well-made set. The post-1950s furnishings and costumes revamped the old Victorian tale, but at times seemed incongruous in relation to the plot. For example, Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford’s roles as intrusively authoritative figures of the city seemed out of sync when they entered Mrs Lovett’s comely television lounge that she shared with Sweeney Todd. Elements of Dickensian London (George Ure’s performance of Tobias Ragg resembled a dumb Oliver Twist) were ill fitting in this Thatcherite world where housewives dream of Devonshire retreats. The addition of a small van for Pirelli’s salon offered much light and humour to an otherwise predominantly dimly-lit stage.

Though the music was rather musical-like (predictable and repetitive), the Welsh National Opera Orchestra added a sense of drama and suspense whilst managing to keep the singers in time. James Holmes conducted with relentless energy and surging gusto. As always, the WNO chorus sounded strong and sung with passion and conviction. Interestingly, the WNO are not alone in featuring Sondheim’s ‘musical thriller’: the San Francisco Opera House is also performing Sweeney Todd. 

The mixture of abilities amongst the cast and crew was sometimes distractingly imbalanced. Charlotte Page acted the part of the beggar woman superbly and Soraya Mafi sung delightfully as Johanna. Janis Kelly was the life and soul of the piece, her characterisation, sharp-tongue, and scummy appearance as Mrs Lovett was executed with no restraint. As Anthony Hope (the young lad in love with Johanna), Jamie Muscato was charming though a little boring. Steven Page as Judge Turpin was convincingly austere and disturbing (replete with a scene of self-flagellation in an attempt to redirect his lustful thoughts for Johanna, his adopted daughter). Unfortunately David Arnsperger was a German sounding (though supposed to be cockney) Sweeney Todd. Additionally his acting was at times a little Brechtian in a non-Brechtian production. One couldn’t help but hear and see the acting in his voice and movement rather than believe in the character he was trying to portray. As a singer his voice was strong and consistent, though was not memorable (it sometimes sounded nasal and breathy).

It leaves me to say that whilst Sweeney Todd was an entertaining, but not fantastic production. It was held back by its lack of tact and overdone humour. James Brining’s direction would suit an audience of young adults who are open to the idea of opera, though for those who were expecting breath-taking arias and duets, the closest thing to passion came when Mrs Lovett bit into a pie that rested on Sweeney Todd’s crotch, as he lay back on a table.

Lucy Jeffrey

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