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S & H Opera Review

SONDHEIM Sweeney Todd Opera North at Sadler's Wells, London 15 June 2002 (PGW)

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 (see Anna 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 of several 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


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