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Cooperstown (Alice Busch Theater)
07/09/2016 -  & July 18, 22, 30 (2), August 4, 6*, 13, 15, 21, 23, 26, 2016
Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd
Greer Grimsley (Sweeney Todd), Luretta Bybee (Mrs. Lovett), Harry Greenleaf (Anthony Hope), Emily Pogorelc (Johanna Barker), Patricia Schuman (Beggar Woman), Peter Volpe (Judge Turpin), Bille Bruley (Beadle Bamford), Nicholas Nestorak (Tobias Rigg), Christopher Bozeka (Adolfo Pirelli)
The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus, David Moody (chorus master), The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, John DeMain (conductor)
Christopher Alden (director), Andrew Cavanaugh Holland (set designer), Terese Wadden (costume designer), Eric Sean Fogel (choreographer), Robert Wierzel (lighting designer)

L. Bybee & G. Grimsley (© Karli Cadel)

Stephen Sondheim has never shown any interest in being an opera composer per se - he prefers the term “musical theater”. But a quick glance at the website www.operabase.com will show an impressive list of productions far and wide, with Sweeney Todd, his "musical thriller", easily in the forefront.

Christopher Alden’s production at Glimmerglass, conducted by John DeMain (incidentally also the conductor of the first opera house production of the work back in 1984), serves to solidify the work’s status as part of the emerging contemporary canon.

Stage director Alden has been accused of stagings that are not werktreue - i.e., not faithful to the original intent of the creators. His stylized approach to Sweeney Todd, however, serves to heighten the demented aspects of the work. Instead of the ostensibly Victorian setting of the drama, we find ourselves in a drab postwar venue with aspirations toward a tinselly fashionability. This works well, especially when the ever-present chorus give evidence of being inmates of an institution for meat-pie insatiable zombies.

The blood-letting aspects of Sweeney Todd's murder spree are underplayed compared with other productions I have seen, but are represented by a man, dressed as a woman, hurling a bucket of blood against the wall as each victim experiences the razor. This is effectively unsettling in its own weird way.

The piece stands or falls with the performer of the title role. Greer Grimsley is ideal, his doom-filled voice and presence hypnotically chilling throughout. (Another role I have seen him perform, Wagner’s Amfortas, was frightening in its intensity.) At a (or perhaps THE) climactic moment of the work he delivers the line “And I am full of joy!” His fierce delivery of the words totally belies the content - the result is both startling and scary.

Luretta Bybee evinces all the perverse charm Mrs. Lovett needs as she wallows in the tatty “glamour” gained her successful meat pies. Peter Volpe is a rich-voiced Judge Turpin, and his delivery of spoken lines is replete with baroque innuendo.

Once again members of the festival’s Young Artist contingent make their mark. Christopher Bozeka displays a pingy tenor and terrific comic nous as the pseudo-Italian Adolfo Pirelli, purveyor of a bogus hair tonic, while Nicholas Nestorak goes appropriately over the top as the cockney Tobias Ragg, as does Bille Bruley as the wheedling Beadle Bamford. The two innocent lovebirds, Anthony Hope and Johanna Barker, are ably portrayed by Harry Greenleaf and Emily Pogorelc.

Once again, Francesca Zambello’s policy of presenting a musical - without amplification - each season has been superbly justified.

Next year’s musical at Glimmerglass will be Oklahoma!, the first Richard Rodgers work to be performed there.

Michael Johnson



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