Opera houses like Sondheim’s grisly musical and have taken it under (and into) their wings to perform possibly as often as venues that are more obviously associated with musical theatre. Whether opera audiences share that delight in the well-known story of the hate-filled barber who fills Mrs Lovett’s pies with the victims of that hatred is less evident. It seems audiences have been as disinclided to take their seats for this WNO show as patrons of Mr Todd’s barber shop chair.
The performance I saw at Wales Millennium Centre on the show’s return to Cardiff for a week-long run at the end of WNO’s autumn tour (it played here at the very start of that tour as well) went down extremely well with the audience with plenty of people rising to their feet at the curtain call. Looking around it was clearly a very varied audience, probably not typical WNO ticket buyers, and I have heard similar tales from the not particularly well-selling tour to the company’s regular venues.
Soraya Mafi and George Newtown-Fitzgerald
George Ure and Janis Kelly
Perhaps a week-long return visit to WMC was not a great idea as there was a fair smattering of empty seats. On other nights I have been told audience members have been moved down to fill lower levels. Who knows why it has been such a hard sell? The attempt to reach out to different audiences may have worked in bringing in new people but it may also have turned off those more traditionalists who want an opera company to perform, well, opera. Yet as we see musicals appearing more frequently on what are traditionally opera stages we better get used to it, like it or not. Frankly, I enjoyed it a lot more than some recent operatic offerings and from what I hear there are some challenging nights at the theatre ahead of us.
Whatever the artistic merit or business case for this strategy it is a pity if people were put off coming to see this show, as I thoroughly enjoyed it. Okay, so I didn’t like having singers wearing microphones when I am pretty sure at least some of those on the stage can fill an auditorium without such technical help. However, other players are from the world of musical theatre and therefore well-used to such amplification. Horses for courses. Opera is also the world of zany, psychobabble, intellectual horseplay by directors and their designers. Thus I had no problem with the updating of the action and the use of what look like large metal industrial containers cut open to become, variously, the barber shop, the judge’s house, Johanna’s bedroom.
James Bringing’s direction and Colin Richardson’s designs gave the show a feel of EastEnders relocated into Tilbury container dock circa 1970 with visits to Nurse Ratchet’s asylum in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This show’s asylum run by Jonas Fogg, played as grimly corrupt by George Newton-Fitzgerald, eventually spilled into the rest of the set, extending the concept of madness which was WNO’s season theme.
David Arnsperger and Janis Kelly
For the uninitiated, the demon barber story begins with our hero (!) returning to seedy, grimy London after spending 15 years in Australia after being deported by Judge Turpin who has designs on his wife Lucy. He is in fact rescued at sea by a naive young sailor called Anthony.
The barber assumes a new name, Sweeney Todd, and is encouraged to set up a new barber shop above a disgusting pie shop by the widow Nellie Lovett who recognises him, has always had a soft spot for him and, after the first murder, has the idea of turning people into pies.
Mrs Lovett’s pie shop was reminiscent of the café in Albert Square with the counter, a chill cabinet, cheap tables and chairs with plastic covers etc. In fact Mrs Lovett acted and sung by the star of the show; Janis Kelly was the most satisfying character in the musical (as it often is). Sweeney is played by David Arnsperger and he is indeed a disturbing, obsessed, psychopath as he fixated on revenge on those who ruined his life and then virtually the whole of mankind. Perhaps it was being from Germany that contributed to the extremely distinctive spoken voice which made him both instantly different and strange.
The two musical theatre performers George Ure and Jamie Muscato gave engaging portrayals as Tobias and Anthony. Tobias was presented as a cheeky, jolly but ultimately driven mad youngster who joins Mrs Lovett in the pie shop after the disappearance of his employer Pirelli, the quack barber/surgeon who is that first victim – Todd has to dispose of his rival when he too recognises him. Jamie Muscato played the romantic interest Anthony who falls for Todd’s daughter Johanna who, all these years later, has been adopted by the corrupt Judge Turpin. Muscato looked the part of the handsome young man and sang charmingly but I did find him a little posh for the role of a sailor wandering London’s sleazy docklands.
No problems at all with Steven Page and Aled Hall as the judge and beadle. The former balancing hypocrisy, bridled lust (requiring self-flagellation to control his arour) and arrogant self-delusion. The latter a total thug but here also at times a but of a panto villain. Soraya Mafi sang a delightful Johanna and I can’t see what else she could have done with this role in this particular production that just be sweet and at the necessary moment in the asylum rescue scene, somewhat deranged. The pair, Anthony and Johanna, are a bit nauseatingly sweet, like Cosette and Marius in Les Mis.
Unlike Mrs Lovett’s cat-filled pies, Charlotte Page had plenty of meat to get her teeth into as the beggar woman and towards the musical’s denouement becomes an even more important and significant character. Paul Charles Clarke was full of wit and then nastiness as Pirelli and his travelling barber’s shop being a Del Boy-esque Reliant Robin was a hoot.
The soundscape created by the glorious WNO chorus and the full Orchestra, conducted with relish by James Homes was probably the most compelling justification of this show, a reworking of the West Yorkshire Playhouse 2013 co-production with Manchester’s Royal Exchange.
I could easily watch it again. However, I cannot claim to have been totally won over to Sweeney Todd being part of the opera house staple fare. Neither am I a huge fan of the musical itself with some pleasant but limited melodies which become like an over spiced meat pie do tend to repeat, the lyrics are witty but are based on a dictionary of rhymes and patter song techniques and the black humour is pretty obvious although I confess I smiled a lot.
Janis Kelly and David Arnsperger
Steven Page and Aled Hall
Plays until November 29
Wales Millennium Centre
Photography: Johan Persson