Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber of SF Opera

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical, is making its San Francisco Opera debut in a mostly marvelous production from Paris, starring the remarkable baritone Brian Mulligan as the title character and Wagnerian mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime. (All photos by Cory Weaver.)

The original Broadway production, directed by Hal Prince on a huge Industrial Revolution steelworks set, was instantly legendary, though it only ran for 18 months. I still regret not attending the 1980 touring version at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco when it arrived with the original cast of George Hearn (replacing Len Cariou) and Angela Lansbury. It's a wild, strange musical, a black comedy where five principals are graphically murdered onstage in the last 20 minutes. The story was originally published as a serial in an 1846 London newspaper called a "penny dreadful" for its violent, salacious content. After many variations on the tale onstage and onscreen, playwright Christopher Bond wrote a London theatrical adaptation in the 1970s, which captivated Sondheim.

The musical score is extremely ambitious by traditional Broadway standards, requiring strong voices with perfect diction for Sondheim's witty, machine-gun rapid lyrics. The most comprehensible singers in this production are Matthew Grills as Tobias and Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett above, but in general it was impossible to understand the English lyrics, requiring what my friend Janos called "Supertitle Speed Reading." The biggest problem was the sound design by Tod Nixon and the disastrous amplification that was literally all over the place, which somehow made it difficult to understand what anyone was singing. The sound did improve between the first and third performances, with no crackling feedback like opening night, and the various mic levels sounded like they belonged on the same stage which was not the case at the opener.

I wish the production had decided against amplification altogether, particularly for the orchestra under conductor Patrick Summers, since the voices onstage were perfectly capable of being heard without microphones. Brian Mulligan has one of the most powerful, beautiful operatic baritones in the world right now and the great Stephanie Blythe not only sings well but turns out to be a deft comedienne.

There have been many versions of Sweeney Todd since its premiere, from bowdlerized high school productions, to the recent Tim Burton film with bad singers, to stripped down chamber versions where the singers play their own musical instruments, to the full operatic version seen here. They all have their champions, but I'm glad to have seen it for the first time at the San Francisco Opera. The British director Lee Blakeley has done a wonderful job, particularly with the opera chorus who play mobs of shoppers, diners, and lunatics with unusual flare, and the production does a skillful job of balancing the humor and the serious horror of the piece. The rest of the cast, headed by Heidi Stober, James Asher, Wayne Tigges, AJ Glueckert, Elizabeth Futral, and David Curry are all good actors and in fine voice, even when fighting with the sound design. Highly recommended, and there are four more performances, including tomorrow afternoon at 2PM.

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