Opera Warhorses

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Review: “Sweeney Todd” at Houston Grand Opera: Nathan Gunn, Director Lee Blakeley Make a Compelling Case for Sondheim as Opera, April 24, 2015

April 25th, 2015

Over the past half decade Parisian opera audiences have taken to heart the dramatic musical works of American composer Stephen Sondheim, presented at the Théâtre du Châtelet. A foursome of Sondheim productions – which included “Into the Woods”, “Sunday in the Park with George” and “A Little Night Music” – were conceived by Scottish director Lee Blakeley.

The Houston Grand Opera chose to mount the American premiere of the fourth production,”Sweeney Todd”, which in September with a completely different cast, travels also to the San Francisco Opera for the opening night weekend of San Francisco’s 2015-16 season.

The Houston Grand Opera was fortunate to have secured American baritone Nathan Gunn for the title role, whose secure vocalism, winsome acting (and superstar status) helped assure that this production would prove a momentous hit.

(Those in San Francisco who might wonder why Nathan Gunn is not performing the role there when this production arrives this September, should note that he is engaged in the rehearsal periods and full runs of two important world premiere operas – Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” on August 1st in Santa Fe, whose lead role was created for him, and Heggie’s “Great Scott”, opening October 30 at The Dallas Opera.)

[Below: returning to England from Australia’s Botany Bay prison is the falsely accused Benjamin Barker, who has renamed himself Sweeney Todd (Nathan Gunn); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


The prima donna in “Sweeney Todd” is Mrs Lovett, played by the British Wagnerian soprano Susan Bullock O. B. E. The Cockney Mrs Lovett makes and sells pies, but they suffer (The Worst Pies in London) from the unaffordability of ingredients in London’s East End at this point of time in the 1870s.

[Below: Mrs Lovett (Susan Bullock, O.B. E.) laments that a rival baker uses neighborhood cats as the ingredient in her meat pies; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


It is the character of Mrs Lovett that drives the action into bizarre directions. Harboring a decades-old affection for Todd (née Barker), she transforms the plot from the straight up revenge drama that motivates much of the verismo genre to an amalgamation of vigilante justice and fashionably trendy cannibalism.

The subject matter, of course, which could prove too much for audiences that comfortably embrace the psychotic behavior in such operatic fare as Richard Strauss’ “Salome” or the disregard for human life of Puccini’s Princess Turandot, is treated with outrageous humor.

Perhaps there is no showstopper in all of Sondheim (or of any Broadway musical) that can match the duet between Mrs Lovett and Sweeney that ends Act I, when she  devises a plan  (sung in waltz time) for the barber Todd to slit the throats of London’s miscreants, and for Mrs Lovett to put their bodies through a meat grinder (three times) and bake them into her meat pies.

Other Characters and Cast Members

Two lovers, unsullied by any of the nefarious activities that make almost every character culpable of criminal acts in some way, are Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (American soprano Megan Samarin) and the sailor Anthony Hope (Australian baritone Morgan Pearse). Anthony’s love ballad Johanna (elegantly assayed by Pearse and sung also, with more sinister purpose, by Gunn’s Sweeney) is arugably the show’s best-known aria.

[Below: the sailor Anthony Hope (Morgan Pearse, right) has fallen in love with Johanna (Megan Samarin, left); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


The opera’s villain is Judge Turpin (sung by Jake Gardner, returning to the Houston Grand Opera 40 years after his appearance here as Valentin in Gounod’s “Faust”).

A deeply flawed character, Turpin used his power as a judge to condemn and banish from England an innocent man because he coveted the man’s (Benjamin Barker’s) wife, Lucy.  Although the Judge’s evil intent is foiled by Lucy, who drinks poison, the Judge takes over guardianship of Benjamin’s and Lucy’s infant daughter Johanna.

[Below Judge Turpin (American tenor bass-baritone Jake Gardner, left) confers with his assistant, Beadle Bamford (American tenor Kevin Ray); edited image, based on a Lynn Lande photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


The cast is rounded out with fine performances from Cynthia Clayton as the Beggar Woman, Kevin Ray as the Beadle Bamford, with special commendation for the Tobias (Toby) of American tenor Nicholas Pham, who has two major showpiece arias and an important role in the opera’s denouement.

Scott Quinn made a strong impression, performing the role of Pirelli, Sweeney Todd’s rival in a shaving contest (who later will become Todd’s first victim). Quinn, whose career is in the ascendancy, is scheduled for important roles over the next year, including the world premiere performances of Floyd’s “Prince of Players” at Houston Grand Opera and Steva Burya in next year’s San Francisco Opera performances of Janacek’s “Jenufa”.

James Lowe conducted. Andrew Harper was Sound Desinger. Richard Bado was chorus director, Lorena Randi the choreographer.

[Below Toby (American tenor Nicholas Phan, top left) grasping the horror of what has been going on around him slits the throat of Sweeney Todd (Nicholas Gunn, bottom left), who is disconsolate in discovering that the mad beggar woman was, in fact, his wife Lucy (Cynthia Clayton, right, on floor); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Sets and Costumes

The physical production, created by Set and Costume Designer Tanya McCallin, is one of the largest to have been mounted on the Houston Grand Opera stage. It consists of two stories, with Todd’s barber chair on the second floor (complete with chute so that the bodies of men he has killed are dispatched directly into a larder adjacent to the cooking vats.

[Below: the basic sets for “Sweeney Todd”, here for the scene in which Mrs Lovett’s meat pies have become a culinary rage in London; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Thoughts on Sondheim in the Opera House

In past reviews I have sided with those who argue that many of the classics of American musical theater belong in the opera house. The larger opera companies in the United States command the vocal and orchestral resources needed for many classic works, and have the ability to give them proper theatrical staging.

In fact, Houston Grand Opera, which pioneered full productions of George Gershwin’s and Dubose Heyward’s “Porgy and Bess”, mounted the Harold Prince version of “Sweeney Todd”, the opera just a few years old, for baritone Timothy Nolen in the early 1980s.

There are issues in staging Sondheim and later American musicals in that most of these are written to be miked, whereas that is not the case of the works of, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein or of Lerner and Loewe. In the latter examples dialogue is often miked, but arias and choral ensembles are not.

[Below: the rival barber Pirelli (Scott Quinn, center, standing), who will become the Sweeney’s first victim; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


The issue becomes more complex in a piece such as Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” where there are considerable amounts of spoken dialogue that takes place over orchestral underscoring. But with “Sweeney Todd” and many other late 20th century musicals, the dialogue with orchestral underscoring, solo numbers and choruses flow seamlessly.

Trying to “unmike” portions of a Sondheim musical might prove a nightmare for a sound engineer, without improving the audience experience. A person familiar with the acoustics of a particular opera house may find the sounds of Sondheim rather different from an unmiked opera, but that’s the way it is written.

There are practical reasons for including at least one the great American musicals in a major company’s opera season. These musicals provide a new experience for many opera goers – presenting a great musical theater piece sung by favorite opera singers and staged with an opera company’s considerable orchestral and theatrical resources.

(Those opera goers who lament not finding memorable melodies in many contemporary operas may be surprised at how much delightful melody infuses “Sweeney Todd”.)

Opera company offerings of musical theater may also invite newcomers to the opera house, and a valuable number of those could be tempted to return for, say,  a “Boheme” or a “Carmen”.

The Houston Audience’s Reaction

Tumultuous ovations greeted the work at the end of the first act, when Gunn’s Todd and Susan Bullock’s Mrs Lovett engaged in one of the most hilarious showstoppers in the history of the Broadway musical. “Sweeney Todd” is a dark and bloody comedy, but is simultaneously lighthearted throughout.

A vociferous standing ovation followed the final scene (in which several of the main characters perished), clearly establishing that Houston’s audiences found the same rapport with the opera and production as had been reported from Paris.


I recommend this cast and production without reservation.

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