Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Sweeney Todd @ Royal Festival Hall, London

5, 6, 7 July 2007

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

The Royal Festival Hall’s presentation of Sweeney Todd is much more elaborate than we might expect from a “semi-staging”, with all cast members in some semblance of costume, extensive props and most of the podium for the company to work on. With the band swept into a corner, David Freeman‘s groupings and use of the resources he has at his disposal is characteristically imaginative and goes a long way towards overcoming the limitations.

Stephen Sondheim seems to have become accepted into the music establishment of this country but, with a sub-standard Sweeney Todd at the Royal Opera House a couple of years ago and a provincial rep-style Into the Woods at the Linbury recently, he’s overdue for a decent production if this cross-over into the opera house is to prove fully justified.

Without the distractions of a scrappy staging, and with a successful blend of opera and musical singers, this concert version of Sondheim’s dark masterpiece in one of London’s premiere music venues helps validate his elevation to the portals of high art. Opera singers (Bryn Terfel and a vocally agile Adrian Thompson) work alongside top-notch musical stars (Maria Friedman, Philip Quast, Daniel Evans and Emma Williams) and there’s a wealth of Sondheim experience among them.

Terfel, who played the title role in Chicago a few years ago, storms the stage, a wild bull of a man with his heart torn out. Like Thomas Allen at the Royal Opera before him, he’s an enormously powerful Sweeney, truly terrifying in his Epiphany when he comes into the audience and picks out individuals to terrorise with his lust for vengeance.

There are cuts (no pun intended) and the main victim is Judge Turpin, who loses his “Mea Culpa” number, thus reducing his part considerably. It’s a shame because Philip Quast (himself a potentially fine Sweeney) sings beautifully what’s left to him. In his “Pretty Women” duet with Terfel, we see the sparring of two great performers.

Friedman is maybe the most revolting Mrs Lovett I’ve seen, a dumpy overgrown doll, with a wildly funny physical characterisation and great timing. The versatile Daniel Evans is an impish Toby, a far cry from his Olivier Award-winning turn in last year’s Sunday in the Park with George. He manages to steer clear of the exaggerated Cockney acting that can mar the part, something that Rosemary Ashe‘s Beggar Woman doesn’t quite avoid.

As the ensemble, the production uses the considerable talents of students from the Guildford School of Acting Conservatoire, who fling themselves around the stage energetically and people the grim world of Victorian London with relish. The young lovers, Anthony and Johanna, are ably sung by Daniel Boys (a contestant in the BBC’s recent Any Dream Will Do talent show) and a sweet Emma Williams.

If not as fleet-footed as the best Broadway, or occasionally West End, production, a concert version of a show like this can really gain in orchestral sound (what theatre could hope to compete with the Royal Festival Hall’s mighty organ which thunders out a tremendous cadenza at the beginning of the piece?). The London Philharmonic under Stephen Barlow revels in the composer’s sound world, full of chromatic picture painting and lush, almost sentimental, beauty. Who but Sondheim could pull off a number where a man sings a beautifully tender ballad while slicing throat after throat?

The amplification of the singers isn’t great and it doesn’t prevent the orchestra overwhelming them at times, meaning some loss of the all-important words. So much of the power of Sondheim’s writing derives from Christopher Bond’s play, on which it was based. With its acute social observations and metaphors for a society devouring those at the bottom of the heap, it’s not just Sondheim’s extremely witty lyrics that get lost when the words aren’t clear but something much deeper.

Sweeney Todd has to be Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork. It’s a score you can never tire of hearing and this four performance run is a hugely enjoyable reminder of why it’s sure to be revived for years to come.

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