Semi-staged Sweeney Todd

10 Apr

My husband loves Sondheim and Sweeney Todd in particular.  I’m more ambivalent.  I recongise the skill, the power of the piece; I just don’t like it that much.  I’ve seen quite a lot of good producitons of it recently and I’ve seen Terfel in the title role.  So, off my own bat I probably wouldn’t have paid premium ENO prices to see a semi-staging.  However, not doing so simply wasn’t compatible with a quiet life and that’s why I was at the performance at the Coliseum on 7th April.  It had lots going for it.

Previous productions by opera companies have tended to use opera singers in the leading roles.  This is understandable. The show is intensely operatic – the huge set pieces, the grand guignol plot and the sheer skill of musical numbers scream that it has a place in the opera house.  It doesn’t follow from that, however, that it’ll work with opera singers.  Individual stars may be able to cope but the style is likely to be alien to the rest of the cast.  Opera North got away with it, thanks to small theatres, great direction and a committed cast, but the Royal Opera House version foundered just because the style doesn’t come naturally to an operatic tradition.  Productions at the National and Chichester, using singers more used to musicals have worked better.  And that was the ENO chose.  Apart from Terfel and the orchestra and David Charles Abell, the conductor, nobody onstage had been in an opera performance before – and what we saw was far more like a musical, as they are performed these days.

The performances were great.  Terfel has been singing Todd for a decade;  He presents the monster, the determination, the panic and the wit really well.  He owns the stage.  Vocally he’s a bit more ragged than he used to be but he can still manage the subtleties as well as the implacability of the role. Thompson makes a very good Mrs Lovett – funnier than many.  Can she sing?  She gets away with the music with huge aplomb and you don’t need any more.  Personally, I preferred Imelda Staunton’s nastier, rather deeper approach but she and Terfel had a good double act going.  Matthew Seadon-Young and Katie Hall did the young couple nicely.  She sang her bits well.  Philip Quast was an expert and very nasty Judge.  Alex Gaumond was memorably reptilian as Beadle Bamford.  John Owen-Jones had the right flamboyance and nastiness for indeed as Pirelli and Rosalie Graig was a strong beggar woman.

David Charles Abell knows how this music should go and conducted a very secure performance.  Ensemble and orchestra gave committed, idiomatic performances.

This was a semi-staging, but it looked pretty comprehensively staged to me..  It began formally, with a twee concert setting – red velvet, flower displays, cast in tails – you get the idea.  Much of the first number, from the moment Terfel and Thompson looked at each other and chucked their scores and stands into the empty pit, was spent destroying the prettiness and creating a much rawer environment.  There was a nice improvisatory feel to it – cymbals stood for plates, Mrs Lovett used a timpani to roll her pastry on; Todd’s barber’s chair was a theatre seat. The multi-levelled set suggested different locations.  This actually works well for a piece that has a strongly Brechtian feel about it.  The plot came across clearly and with considerable wit; the performers acted their hearts out and there was a standing ovation at the end..

So I enjoyed it and these fourteen completely sold out performances can’t have done the ENO’s box office much harm.  But why did I feel slightly dissatisfied at the end of it?  First, the amplification was not well done – or diction wasn’t good.  If you can’t make out what Terfel is singing through the fuzz then something is the matter.  Most of the singers struggled to get the fast passages heard – and, irony of ironies, there were no surtitles.  Secondly, for all its operatic qualities, the show works best for me in a smaller theatre, with a smaller, less operatic orchestra.  Inevitably the tension and horror that you look for gets dispersed in the huge cavern that is the Coliseum.  And I paid considerably more for my seat than I would for a fully staged version with a starry cast in the West End.  Perhaps if I liked the piece a bit better…

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