Everyone ends up mincemeat
12/15/2003 - and 17, 18, 20 December 2003, 1, 3, 6, 9, 14 January 2004
Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd
Thomas Allen (Sweeney Todd), Anthony Hope (William Dazeley), Rosalind Plowright (Beggar Woman), Felicity Palmer (Mrs Lovett), Johanna (Rebecca Evans), Jonathan Veira (Judge Turpin), Doug Jones (Tobias Ragg), Bonaventura Bottone (Pirelli), Robert Tear (The Beadle), Matthew Rose (Jonas Fogg)
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Paul Gemignani (conductor), Neil Armfield (director)
The stage of the Royal Opera House has seen its share of mayhem, since the most popular operas seem to be about people who hate each other enough to kill. This production of Sweeney Todd (shared with the Lyric Opera of Chicago) must, however, be the first time murder has been deliberately funny in this house, although the show had its first London run just around the corner in Drury Lane. Perhaps there is something in the air: both theatres are a few steps away from the Strand, which is the continuation of Fleet Street, Todd's shaving ground, as well as from the old Bow Street police station, where the first public police force was founded to try to control the area's disorder. Covent Garden is an ancient locale for fun, crime and everything that nice people are scared of.
But this nice enough audience obviously wasn't scared, instead laughing obediently like the old D'Oyly Carte faithful. Sweeney Todd potentially uses a comic contagion of violence to look into the abyss, but this performance lacked a sense of danger. A part of the problem was obviously the casting of (discretely amplified) opera singers in all the roles, although Opera North's 1998 production had far more teeth with only Beverly Klein's Mrs Lovett from a music-theatre rather than operatic background. Covent Garden might have done better to import Opera North's coiled-steel Steven Page as Sweeney Todd than to rely on Thomas Allen's Mozartian track record as a barber and revolutionary psychopath. Allen brooded well, but he never came near the searing edge of madness that Sweeney needs, and while he made every word superbly clear he didn't seem to be inside the music, often producing a rather confusing Sprechstimme.
Most of the rest of the cast didn't quite work either, in spite of looking right on paper. Jonathan Veira's Judge was more the Lord Chancellor from Iolanthe than the requisite perverted sleazebag, and Robert Tear's Welsh Beadle came over as feeble rather than insinuating. Rosalind Plowright's Beggar Woman was sadly neither frightening nor pathetic, raising laughs on her first appearance instead of shock and nausea. Doug Jones' Tobias had a certain pathos by the end, but was puzzlingly unfocussed. Rebecca Evans as Johanna sang nicely, but without the self-parody of the music-theatre ingénue. William Dazeley sounded beautiful and acted dim enough as Anthony, a role that the right singer can get away with playing straight.
Only Felicity Palmer as Mrs Lovett really had the energy and comic timing (and appropriate stage accent) for her role, as scary an old bat as you'd hope not to buy pies from, though Bonaventura Bottone's Pirelli came close. The most frightening moment of the evening was the pre-overture warning by Matthew Rose (in character as Fogg) to turn off phones and unwrap sweeties NOW.
Neil Armfield's production, on an admirably economical set that consisted mainly of off-white curtains, may have contributed to the general insecurity of tone. There was a general sense that the singers were trying some of the time for conversational delivery of the songs and (apart from Palmer) not achieving it. More broadly, Armfield seemed to be aiming for verismo if not realism, in a work where artifice is written in in a way that any music-theatre performer would relish. The sepia colours and extracts from Mayhew in the programme reinforced the impression that he was trying to put the audience in touch with human suffering from a different age, when most of them were expecting to be scared out of their wits.
Paul Gemignani, who conducted the original Broadway run, had more luck with the orchestra, exposing the ingenious complexity of the score, which owes as much to Jonathan Tunick's orchestration as to Sondheim's musical wit, with wonderful clarity. The chorus, alas, looked bored rigid throughout and did much to make a chronologically swift performance drag.