Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Gale Edwards for Opera Australia. Sydney Opera House until November 3, 2001. Melbourne and Adelaide in 2002.
Sweeney Todd is the one and only Sondheim composition to make it into the New Kobbe, but calling it a opera -- even a ‘ballad opera’ -- isn’t going to make it one. Sondheim has flirted with through-composition and more operatic structures from time to time, but Sweeney Todd is considerably less operatic than, say, Les Misèrables. It’s also considerably less sophisticated, musically, though Sondheim’s mastery of timing and effect is always strikingly evident.
In fact, Sweeney Todd makes most sense if you see it as a bog ordinary musical which sets out to rip up the conventions of Broadway... and, indeed, of mainstream America. It’s very much the forerunner of Into The Woods: a grim-with-one-m fairy tale. Its lyrics are subversive, brilliantly witty and unspeakably misanthropic.
Though Sondheim’s slasher musical cranked up more than 550 performances on Broadway (with Len Cariou wielding the blade and Angela Lansbury baking the ‘Nelly Blighs’) the subsequent road tour was less than a roaring success. So, like most of the Sondheim repertoire, Sweeney Todd has been left to ‘serious’ theatre companies to stage, typically in scaled-down form. (The Melbourne Theatre Company mounted a creditable production with just ten in the pit and a dozen on the Playhouse stage in 1987.)
Unquestionably, Sweeney Todd is worth doing and worth doing well. That, surely, is reason enough for Opera Australia to be tackling it. The company makes no apologies for doing G & S, nor should it for even the lowliest of Sondheim.
Director Gale Edwards resists the very real (and, perhaps, very reasonable) temptation to make Sweeney Todd into a study of female collaborators of mass murders, a la Myra Hindley. Edwards keeps things as gaudy and lurid as a penny dreadful; and as uncomplicated as a Disney cartoon.
It’s hard to imagine a more effective or impressive design. Peter England’s subterranean world of dank sewers and rusting Satanic Mills makes exceptional use of the Opera Theatre stage. (For once, claustrophobia is a design decision, not merely a limitation of the venue!) Equally impressive is Trudy Dalgleish’s thoughtful and dramatic lighting, though the uncredited make-up is crude.
Opera Australia’s decision to amplify the main cast members is, however, a dubious one. While the head-microphones ensure that we can distinguish virtually every word sung -- except when Rosemarie Arthars is doing her bag-lady mumbling as the beggar woman -- the voices are as eviscerated as Sweeney’s victims; the midrange ripped from each and every one. This single decision seriously undermines the sense of casting opera singers instead of actors who can sing competently.
Happily, the lead couple (Peter Coleman-Wright and Judi Connelli) would have a decent shot at winning the lead roles in any Sondheim Dream Team. Anywhere. Coleman-Wright is a corpse-like and monomaniacal Sweeney, obsessed with avenging his wrongful conviction, the poisoning of his wife and abduction of his daughter Johanna, all by Judge Turpin (John Pringle doing the self-flagellation and looking like Lady Chatterley’s husband, Clifford). When Mrs Lovett presents Sweeney with the blade set he left in her keeping 15 years earlier, when he was transported to Botany Bay, he sings “these are my friends, my faithful friends” as if it were a poignant love song. “At last, my arm is complete again.”
Judi Connelli is an exceptionally good Mrs Lovett. She walks the razor-sharp line that divides black humour from pathos. Like Coleman-Wright, she shows control and prudence. Instead of a radiating in all directions, Connelli harnesses and focuses her starlight into a laser-sharp beam.
With his guileless, open face and Chesty Bond jaw, Andrew Brunsdon is a spectacularly innocent Anthony Hope, the sailor who falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter after rescuing the demon barber at sea. Leanne Kenneally plays his love as if she were Rapunzel. She sings with an ironically appropriate lack of tessitura in ‘teach me how to sing’. (The word ‘screaming’, for example, ends up sounding like ‘screemeeng’. This is contagious, apparently, for Anthony eventually sings “weendow” instead of window.)
This luxury cast also has Barry Ryan as the wicked beadle and Anson Austin as the outrageously bogus Pirelli, “barber of kings and king of barbers”. Both are in excellent voice. But even in this company the Tobias of Rodney Dobson stands out. His acting skills give him the edge. No pun intended.
Like most Gale Edwards productions, there’s a revolve and some slutty Les Mis wench-acting, but the errors of tact are relatively minor. And the whole is impressively finished.
Sweeney Todd deserves a wide audience; one drawn from the ranks of ‘serious’ theatregoers (who will be delighted by the scale, the level of craft and the intensity of the drama) and lovers of musicals (who will be knocked out, at the very least, by the fact that they are enjoying an opera production).
Sweeney Todd is certainly not poor-man’s opera. Rather, it’s rich man’s music theatre.
This review was published in the September 29-30 2001 edition of the Australian Financial Review.
Sweeney Todd returns to the Sydney Opera House on Friday January 19, 2007.