Originally published on Reviews Hub
Sweeney Todd is one of the only shows that seems to be able to sit easily in both the theatrical and operatic canons. Whether Sondheim’s work is a musical or full-blown opera is a point that can be debated ad nauseam – my own inclinations tend to place it firmly in the theatre box – but it is a pleasure to hear Sondheim’s gothic, haunting and thrilling score given a full-blooded airing by Welsh National Opera’s orchestra under the baton of James Holmes.
Part of WNO’s Autumn Season and bunched under the theme of Madness, very few characters demonstrate it with the frightening relish of Sweeney, wronged by a corrupt state and returning as an avenging angel with a particular inclination in offering customers a close shave. German baritone David Arnsperger’s vocal inflections are too connected with his homeland to convince as a natural Cockney and his acting is far too one-dimensionally pitched, we see the killer but not the wronged soul inside to make this avenging barber sympathetic. Thankfully, Janis Kelly’s Mrs Lovett manages to produce enough fireworks for the both of them, a full-throttle woman who finds the monstrous instinct at the heart of a woman who spots a business idea for her pies in the form of the recently deceased. She is a natural comedian, her face when Arnsperger delivers a mouthful of her rancid pies gains one of the only audible laughs of the evening.
This may be a telling indictment of James Brining’s production that, at least in its transfer to the opera stage, has become rather po-faced, the dark humour and witty wordplay at the heart of the work have got lost to the darker elements. It is fine in its way, but it is a work that doesn’t reveal all its shades. It’s also got a rather under-utilised framing device of being set in some form of psychiatric hospital in the early 1980s, its inmates shambling on at the beginning to sing the chilling first ballad, and leads to some iffy acting work from the usually reliable WNO chorus, full of generalised tics and quirks that need more analysis and the late sequence in Mr Fogg’s asylum in which the meta potential of the scene is ignored. So why, we must ask, has the production been set here? Very few productions will live with the memory of Jonathan Kent’s near-definitive Chichester version, but this production, which began life at Dundee Rep and is now seen in co-production with Wales Millennium Centre, the West Yorkshire Playhouse and in association with Manchester Royal Exchange, poses more questions than it answers.
Still there is plenty to like, from Paul Charles Clarke as the supremely well-sung Pirelli and Aled Hall as a smarmy, creepy Beadle Bamford to Charlotte Page as the filthy beggar woman with a past and the two musical theatre performers Jamie Muscato and George Ure, who more than earn their spurs in the opera world. Any version of Sweeney is always worth watching, it’s a work so good that bits of its genius will always reveal themselves, but this version is one of fleeting pleasures rather than creating any long-term nightmares.