It was disquieting to find oneself disenchanted in the
midst of an enthusiastic audience. The revival of Opera North's 1998
production of Stephen Sondheim's ground breaking 'musical', 80%
through-composed, has been widely praised, though not universally so
Picard in The Independent). It is a rich brew, with allusions
to classical tragedy and popular musics enough to generate long, learned
essays such as those in Opera North's programme book.
Yet this expensive production by director David
McVicar proved less engrossing than any of four or more other versions
I have seen, the best of them the simplest. No serious criticism of
Steven Page's chilling Sweeney Todd, and the supporting cast
of members of Opera North and its Chorus although classically trained
opera singers are not used to putting across the stuff of musicals idiomatically,
and it shows. Beverley Klein as Todd's enthusiastic partner is
an actress, and she had the showstoppers. Our performance was soundly
conducted by Philip Sunderland, but the full orchestration served
the music no better than reduced version (see my comments below about
the Bridewell production).
What else was the trouble? Primarily the heavy and
unwieldy stage apparatus, which trundled back and forth not always to
obvious purpose. And, lethally for musician listeners, the variable
and falsifying balance resulting from sound designer Roland Higham's
amplification was nowhere near as skilful as Michael O'Gorman's discreet
enhancement for Riverdance.
That this was necessary became clear in the first minutes, during which
the words were mostly unintelligible, so that one's eyes became glued
increasingly on the 'side-titles', complete with stage directions, ostensibly
provided for the hearing-impaired, but a boon for all of us, even though
they tended to divide attention. But all that technology had a distancing
and alienating effect, although such is the intrinsic strength of Sondheim's
libretto and music that many of the scenes were bound to grip, especially
in the second act leading to its horrific denouement.
One national reviewer claimed that it would be "hard
to imagine a better case being made for Sweeney Todd as Sondheim's
masterpiece", but in my experience less can often be more. I found the
video of the original USA production devastating and another at London's
Royal National Theatre very satisfying, although I recall little detail.
But unquestionably best of all was a fringe theatre production at The
Bridewell in the City of London, which backs onto Fleet Street,
where the Todd/Lovett meat-pie enterprise was set up in the apocryphal
tale. We re-visited Sweeney Todd at Sadler's Wells on the basis
good reviews of Opera North's revival at Leeds, where the smell
of meat pies apparently wafted into the auditorium during the interval.
Do please click onto that Bridewell hyperlink to see our review of their
truly memorable promenade production, in which the words were mostly
audible over the score played on piano and keyboards, and members of
the audience sat at tables together with the cast outside Mrs Lovett's
establishment to enjoy the renowned meat pies!
Peter Grahame Woolf