Sweeney Todd – powerful and disturbing theatre at St.James’, Wellington

New Zealand Opera (in association with Victorian Opera) presents:
SWEENEY TODD – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM
Book by HUGH WHEELER (from a play by Christopher Bond)

Cast: Sweeney Todd – Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Mrs Lovett – Antoinette Halloran
Anthony Hope – James Benjamin Rodgers
Johanna – Amelia Berry
Tobias Ragg – Joel Granger
Judge Turpin – Phillip Rhodes
Beadle Bamford – Andrew Glover
Beggar Woman – Helen Medlyn
Adolfo Pirelli – Robert Tucker
Jonas Fogg – James Ioelu

Ensemble: Cameron Barclay, Stuart Coats, Declan Cudd
Barbara Graham, Elisabeth Harris, David Holmes
Morag McDowell, Chris McRae, Catherine Reaburn
Emma Sloman, Imogen Thirlwall

Conductor: Benjamin Northey
Director: Stuart Maunder
Designer: Roger Kirk
Lighting: Philip Lethlean
Audio: Jim Aitkins
Wardrobe: Elizabeth Whiting

Orchestra Wellington

St.James Theatre, Wellington

Friday 30th September, 2016

Stuart Maunder, New Zealand Opera’s chief, and the director of the company’s current production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”, showing at Wellington’s St.James Theatre, called the show in a welcome message written in the programme “a meaty night out at the opera”. I admit I took fright for an instant, irrespective of my largely carnivorous food preferences history. It was just that I didn’t really fancy watching a series of lurid, blood-letting encounters served up for the edification of a respectable opera-going audience who might, without warning, transmogrify into a baleful mob calling for the entrails of the next unfortunate Christian thrown into the middle of the Circus Maximus.

However, reason prevailed – and suspecting that my reaction was probably due to a somewhat over-developed imagination, I resolved to bravely gird my loins, and “tough” my way through the predicted carnage!  While I’m not exactly a veteran of many cutting-edge, “anything goes” theatrical productions in the flesh (so to speak) I had seen sufficient examples on film of no-holds-barred ventures into some pretty visceral stuff to know that some present-day forays into the theatre could be pretty harrowing for audiences – so I resigned myself to be ready for anything!

As it turned out, my protective shields soon began to fall away, as, during the course of the drama, I became increasingly involved and/or empathetic with the intricacies, impulses and foibles of the story’s various characters. It was obvious that this production, with its ready and compelling amalgam of colourful Victorian atmosphere and accompanying operatic volatility and tragic darkness at its heart would bring out so much more than merely the notorious examples of violent blood-letting that the subject of “the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has become renowned for above all other considerations.

I couldn’t help feeling the parallels between Sweeney Todd, the “demon barber”, and one of the most famous of all grand operatic characters, the misshapen jester Rigoletto. Each story has at its heart the darkness of wrong being done and having to be paid for in blood by the main character – Sweeney, the innocent victim of the rapacious desires of a judge who through deportation deprived him of his wife (whom he described as “virtuous”) and daughter; and Rigoletto, the unfortunate victim of his own physical deformity and the unfortunate loss of his wife, (whom he described as “an angel”), and, eventually, his daughter. (There’s actually a posting on the web which takes up this theme and develops it – it can be found on the following link http://dropera.blogspot.co.nz/2014/09/rigoletto-todd-demon-jester-of-mantua.html)

I won’t reiterate the points made by the linked article – but the upshot of Sondheim’s music and librettist Hugh Wheeler’s book is that the original “penny-dreadful” character-creation, Sweeney Todd, is fleshed-out, becoming a man with a “past” who is done a great wrong by society, and is determined to wreak revenge upon those responsible (Sondheim was inspired by Christopher Bond’s eponymous 1970s play, which set the character of Sweeney on the road to a kind of almost heroic status, transcending his former grisly serial-killer populist origins).

Quite frankly I couldn’t imagine the work more effectively realized in broad brush-stroke terms than in the performance we witnessed on opening night here in Wellington – one could perhaps cavil at this and that detail, most of which would anyway be matters of individual taste rather than theatrical and operatic absolutes. I haven’t seen another “Sweeney” live, but looked at several complete performance on you-tube, finding nothing that essentially superseded my memory and appreciation of what I witnessed “live” in the St.James last Friday evening. To me the overall atmosphere, the general plan and specific detailings of the set, the powerfully-focused lighting, the costumes that looked as though they had “grown” on the characters, and the sheer, no-holds-barred identification of each cast member with his or her role made for an overwhelming theatrical experience.

What a gift for a vibrant, energetic chorus this work is! – no mere indiscriminate body of variously-garbed onlookers upon whatever, these people lived their different roles as though their lives depended upon the outcome – often they were the story’s trajectory-makers, recounting and commenting on scenarios and events, almost always with clearly-ennunciated diction, even if some of Sondheim’s contrapuntal efforts resulted in general effect rather than specific detailing. Musical and dramatic force occasionally fused to telling effect, an example being the occasional appearance of the well-known “Dies irae” theme, beloved of Requiem settings by various composers throughout the ages, delivered with chilling, almost apocalyptic focus apposite to the stage action.

I thought one of the chorus’s greatest, and most breathtaking moments came mid-way through the Second Act, when vocalized storytelling power was suddenly and dramatically made flesh as the various members broke ranks and assumed the guises of an asylum’s inmates. The ensemble relished the depictions of chaos before regrouping at the scene’s end to drive the music’s fate-saturated course to the point of combustion with their repeated phrase “city on fire!”, echoing and abetting the various characters’ agitations – all very organically and compellingly advanced, the final reiterations of the “Dies ire” theme in the final chorus suitably cathartic, considering the Shakespearian body-count at the work’s conclusion.

The story-line takes in both dark, life-embittered business and youthful, idealized romance, but, there again, so does Beethoven’s Fidelio – rather than regard the scenes between Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, and her young lover, Anthony, as lacking in edge, one must welcome their presence as stars determinedly negating the all-enveloping gloom of a night sky. I thought both Amelia Berry and James Benjamin Rodgers a whole-hearted, life-enhancing duo, making the most of their admittedly under-developed opportunities (though both the first appearance and the reprise of their duet “Kiss me!” was a delight, regarding both its singing and the pair’s accompanying interactions!). Each continued that quality of identification displayed in roles I’d previously seen them take, Berry as an attractive and spirited Zerlina in Don Giovanni and Rodgers as a beautifully characterized Goro in Madama Butterfly.

Antitheses of characterization were provided by a different partnership, that of Robert Tucker’s strong and vibrant-cum-sleazy Adfolfo Pirelli, the showman who attempted to blackmail Sweeney with the latter’s secret past, and his young assistant Tobias Ragg, played by Joel Granger, who conveyed with heartfelt ease his character’s almost naive wholeheartedness and loyalty towards his “protector”, the redoubtable Mrs Lovett, Sweeney’s partner in crime. But an extra dimension of character antithesis rolled into one was conveyed most masterfully by Helen Medlyn, whose portrayal as a mysterious, sometimes deranged, occasionally grisette-like, but at moments almost visionary beggar-woman was a kind of tour-de-force of characterization, transcending the almost “Game-of-Thrones” brutality with which she was despatched by the by-then-maniacal Sweeney (which action proved to be his ultimate undoing).

Villainy of interestingly-coloured threads was variously displayed by both Phillip Rhodes’ Judge Turpin, and Andrew Glover’s Beadle Bamford. The judge’s self-flagellation scene (partly confessional, partly self-indulgent airings of his lustful thoughts regarding Johanna, whom he had adopted as his ward after deporting her father to Australia!) I thought an interesting “take” on proverbial Victorian hypocrisy – through no fault of Phillip Rhodes’ I didn’t think it wasn’t entirely convincing, (and those actual whips seemed very “stylized”, almost to a fault!) – though compared with some rather naff fully-clothed equivalent self-flagellations I watched on You Tube which seemed particularly hypocritical, at least this Judge Turpin appeared to be actually punishing his bare flesh – which, I suppose, might have done it for some members of the audience. More importantly, Rhodes’ singing was a joy – characteristically deep, dark and satisfyingly sinister-sounding, and able to adopt more honeyed tones when appropriate.

And I did relish Andrew Glover’s portrayal of the free-wheeling Beadle Bamford, particularly enjoying the contrast between his swaggering First-Act manner and those almost genteel flecks of self-satisfaction he emitted when playing Mrs Lovett’s harmonium and singing a duet with her. Throughout, his calculated interactions with other characters (such as his suggestions to the Judge regarding ways of making the latter appear more attractive to women – “Ladies in their Sensitivities”) most effectively contributed to something of a study of controlled menace, all the more potent in its implications for whatever outcomes might result.

It could be said that one couldn’t have a “Sweeney Todd” without a performer to do the title role justice – but a great Sweeney would be almost nothing without an equally charismatic partner. This was, of course, the pie-shop lady, Mrs Lovett, who knew Sweeney in his previous life, and who told him upon his return from exile her version of what happened to his wife and his daughter. Here, it was the superb Antoinette Halloran, who brought energy, vibrancy, a great singing voice and well-honed acting skills to the role, bringing out all of the character’s charm and humour as well as a toughness and pragmatism necessary for survival in what were, obviously, tough times in a tough environment.

Though different as chalk from cheese to her Sweeney on this occasion, it was, in a sense, a match made in a theatrical heaven, as each character’s particular largesse complemented the other’s, presenting a kind of united front to the world, even if the fatal flaws in their interaction led to their eventual undoing. As Sweeney, Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ imposing figure certainly commanded the stage, his presence as enigmatic as Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, and as deep-browed as Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard. In contrast to Halloran’s flexible instrument, Rhodes’ tones had a rock-steadiness that allowed for little more than a basic variation of emotion, but which was expressive enough to convey grief at the memory of his long-lost wife and child, tender and flexible enough to salute his long-forgotten barber’s tools (“My Friends”) restored to him by the resourceful Mrs Lovett, and characterful enough to be her foil and allow occasional sparks to fly from their intermingling – their quick-fire-rhyming duet, “A Little Priest”, for instance, demonstrating adroit musical reflexes and teamwork, and producing an exhilarating and enjoyable result.

Yes, bucketfuls of blood were indeed spilt, but in almost every case the killings were practically ritualised, indeed, choreographed, sometimes with the music, so as to add a kind of execution-like air to the vengeful Sweeney’s murderous activities. Come-uppances were also the order of the day for most of the major players in the drama, with only the young lovers and the somewhat (by the end) deranged Tobias remaining more-or-less intact regarding life and limb! So the final sequence featured a ghostly parade of victims and perpetrators of violence alike, as the opening music returned and the chorus delivered the “Dies irae” motif amongst the pulsating textures and tones for the last time, with, fittingly, Sweeney and Mrs Lovett giving the audience the show’s final ironic salute just before the superbly-timed blackout.

So, great theatre, supported by brilliant direction from conductor Benjamin Northey, and on-the-spot playing from Orchestra Wellington. Altogether, it made for an  experience which I thought would have given the average opera-goer food for thought regarding the divisions often drawn between musical theatre and opera, ones which the musical genius of Stephen Sondheim seemed often in this work to call to question/

(A reminder: final two performances in Wellington at the St.James Theatre tonight (Tuesday) 4th Oct. at 6pm and Wednesday 5th Oct. at 7:30pm)

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