Virginia Opera’s gloomy, surprisingly moving ‘Sweeney Todd’

Virginia Opera’s gloomy, surprisingly moving ‘Sweeney Todd’

Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett.
Sweeney Todd (Stephen Powell) and Mrs. Lovett (Phyllis Pancella) examine the tools of the trade. (Credit: Lucid Frame Productions.)

FAIRFAX, Va., October 15, 2014 – The Virginia Opera wrapped up its final two performances of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” this past weekend during its brief trip to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax City.

Saturday’s performance, which we attended, was as crisp, precise, and haunting presentation of this work as you’re ever likely to hear. An added plus: the genuinely sad story of government brutality and lower class tragedy somehow managed to sneak out in this bristling production, giving this odd but popular Broadway-show-turned-opera an added dimension we’ve not often seen.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Musical Thriller,” started out its life as a Broadway musical penned by the supremely talented Stephen Sondheim. Mr. Sondheim transformed an old penny-dreadful tale and London urban legend into a 19th century revenger’s tragedy. In truth, it was pretty exotic fare for Broadway, not to mention its obvious gruesomeness as its horror movie plot swiftly unfolds.

Sweeney and Mr. Pirelli.
Sweeney (Stephen Powell) challenges the fraudulent “Pirelli” (Javier Abreu) to a tonsorial duel with razors. (All photo credits: Lucid Frame Productions)

Unjustly deported to Australia by an evil judge who covets his wife and young daughter, professional barber Benjamin Barker—now disguised as “Sweeney Todd”—returns to London years later. He learns that his beloved wife is apparently dead and his daughter has become the ward of the judge.

Even more horrific to Sweeney: the oily, self-important judge intends to marry the young woman no matter what she thinks. Reacting to this continuing outrage, the furious barber sets up his shop and chair in his old London digs, hoping to attract the judge, the better to dispatch him via one final, very close shave.

Perfecting his throat-slitting technique, Sweeney dispatches many a victim en route to his goal, providing a key assist to his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, whose infamously insipid meat pies could benefit by including some actual meat—no matter what the source. The bodies of Sweeney’s victims will do just fine. Soon, both barber and baker are making a tidy living both upstairs and down. It’s a little reminiscent of that old horror movie spoof, “Motel Hell.”

Sweeney, Mrs. Lovett, and new pies.
Sweeney agrees that Mrs. Lovett’s all-new, secret recipe pies are indeed London’s best.

In the background, a touchy romance develops between Sweeney Todd’s unfortunate daughter Johanna and the barber’s former shipmate, Anthony, all of whom are periodically haunted by a gritty, grimy, crazed and quite mysterious prostitute who seems to know more than anyone might think.

It’s clear that many of Sondheim’s characters will meet a bad end here in this musical tale that is often as darkly comic as it is gloomy and gruesome.

The Virginia Opera’s production was simple, dark, yet surprisingly evocative, conjuring up the seedy, hopeless atmosphere of a run-down portion of London where the lower classes are forced to live in squalor.

Our only misgiving on this production’s staging is that Sweeney’s trick barber chair—a contraption that inverts to swiftly dispatch each terminated customer’s corpse down a chute to the basement where Mrs. Lovett does her thing—relies here on a few black-clad stagehands to do the transport.

Another potential objection arose as the production opened with its choral narrative. The singers were miked*—a no-no for opera purists, and something I prefer not to encounter. That said, opera performances at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, for example, are routinely and understandably amplified, given how the acoustics of an outdoor auditorium function.

In the case of “Sweeney Todd,” things could probably go either way. I’ve heard unamplified performances in smaller buildings and they come across just fine. And, of course, Virginia Opera performs its annual schedule of operas at GMU’s Center for the Arts without the aid of amplification as a matter of routine.

Judge Turpin's final shave.
The evil Judge Turpin (bass-baritone Jake Gardner) is about to experience the closest shave of his life.

That said, since “Sweeney Todd” has one foot on Broadway and another foot in the world of opera, deciding whether to amp or not to amp is really up to the company. In the case of this production, amplification was clean, realistic and not at all ear-splitting, and for those reasons, all things considered, it worked out okay, creating an excellent blend of voice and orchestra while enabling “Sweeney Todd’s” rapid-patter rhyming (and devilishly clever) lyrics to come out intelligibly over 90 percent of the time.

As Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, baritone Stephen Powell was superb as Sondheim’s hulking, brooding, working-class anti-hero. Throughout most of the evening his troubled face was a mask of anguish, revealing the kind of intense, personal suffering that only death can end. His deep, commanding baritone focused the action whenever he appeared on stage and his diction was nearly flawless—a superb, memorable performance.

As Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s live-in love of convenience and eventual co-conspirator, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella looked and acted the part of this worn but still feisty survivor whose romantic subterfuge leads her on an inevitable path to an earthly hell. Ms. Pancella’s robust, earthy mezzo worked well with Mr. Powell’s baritone when they sang together while it proved equally affecting during her solo opportunities.

As the well-meaning but not-always-bright Anthony Hope, Sweeney’s shipboard friend (and the unlikely suitor of the barber’s daughter, Johanna), Andre Chiang’s ringing but pleasant baritone added a normal and welcome counterpoint to the insanity transpiring on stage.

As the much put-upon Johanna, soprano Amanda Opuszynski—whom we chanced to see this summer singing the role of Frasquita in the Santa Fe’ Opera’s provocative “Carmen—virtually embodied her part here, as fresh and innocent as Frasquita was worldly and without scruple. Her brief, bright duets with Mr. Chiang were like bursts of sunlight in a world otherwise abandoned to sin, evil and death.

In the small but key role of young Toby, tenor David Blalock was also quite effective. Plus, Toby gets to sing one of “Sweeney’s” most affecting songs “Not While I’m Around.” Mr. Blalock made the most of his opportunity with a bright, carefree voice that once again provided a marvelous counterpoint to his increasingly sordid surroundings.

Finally, among the major roles, soprano Diana DiMarzio’s weird and perfectly realized Beggar Woman—whose character proves surprisingly central to the plot—was both colorful and creepy. As a vocalist, she was fearless, burying what is clearly a fine voice by wrapping it in a halting character on the outer edges of complete madness. When a singer takes risks like this, the result is a truly memorable evening of opera.

Elsewhere, the small chorus of townspeople, attired to resemble a crew of listless zombies, sang crisply and well, serving as the story’s narrators.

Stage direction by Ron Daniels was minimal but efficient, focusing subtly on both character and singer placement.

And members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra—which also performs as the Virginia Opera Orchestra—performed Sondheim’s beautiful but often dissonant score with great skill and accuracy under the baton of the company’s newly official principal conductor and artistic advisor Adam Turner.

Saturday’s attendance was good but not great, with some “real” opera fans perhaps looking to skip out on something that wasn’t reliably Puccini. However, “Sweeney Todd’s” Broadway image notwithstanding, this work, with its fiendishly clever, Gilbert & Sullivan-style libretto and tricky, spiky, but often lovely score, really does work as a serious opera, fitting into this genre better, we think, than generally lighter, more ephemeral Broadway fare.

When Virginia Opera takes risks in this economic environment, as they did fairly recently with their astounding production of Philip Glass’ 1993 “Orphée,” northern Virginia audiences should be more adventurous and take a chance. They might just find they’ve discovered a new and entirely unexpected favorite.

Rating: *** (Three stars.)


* An editorial aside, FWIW. Back in the day, the accepted terms that described an on-stage device used for amplification was “mike.” The associated adjective for describing that sound was “miked,” or sometimes simply “amplified.” Somewhere in the more recent mists of time, the initial term and its derivatives somehow were capriciously reborn as “mic” and “mic’d.” This strange transformation never made any sense to us. Worse, on the page, the new spelling doesn’t visually represent the correct pronunciation of the term. As a result, this reviewer remains steadfastly retro by insisting on the original usage.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17