Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: A Second Look at “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera – September 20, 2015

September 21st, 2015

Having reported on the two performances that introduced Lee Blakeley’s production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” first to Houston [Review: “Sweeney Todd” at Houston Grand Opera: Nathan Gunn, Director Lee Blakeley Make a Compelling Case for Sondheim as Opera, April 24, 2015] and then to San Francisco [Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015], I looked forward to seeing it yet another time – the fourth of San Francisco’s seven scheduled performances.

[Below: Sweeney Todd (Brian Mulligan, left) and Mrs Lovett (Stephanie Blythe, right) wield cleaver and rolling pin as they agree to rid the human race of miscreants; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I was again impressed with the singing and acting skills of the artists playing the work’s principal protagonists, baritone Brian Mulligan as Sweeney and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Mrs Lovett, by the lyrical beauty of baritone Elliot Madore’s Anthony Hope and the vivid characterization of tenor Matthew Grills’ Tobias Ragg (Toby).

Reviewing “Sweeney” in San Francisco a second time presents an opportunity to discuss other elements of the production and performance.

Patrick Summers and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Sondheim’s orchestration is richly textured and complex, but its extraordinary demands were handled expertly by the San Francisco Opera orchestra, conducted ably by San Francisco Opera’s principal guest conductor Patrick Summers.

[Below: Elliot Madore as Anthony Hope; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The demands on (and opportunities for) the San Francisco Opera Chorus were also noteworthy. Subsets (a trio, a quintet and a 19 person ensemble) of the 48 person regular chorus were used.

The trio – all tenors – consisted of Alan Cochran, Christopher Jackson and Chester Pidduck. For the quintet, Pidduck was joined by soprano Kathleen Bayler, mezzo-soprano Laurel Porter, baritone Torlef Borsting and bass William O’Neill.

[Below: Beadle Bamford (A. J. Gluekert, right) provides information to Judge Turpin (Wayne Tigges, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The seven persons shared by the trio and quintet were themselves joined by 12 additional chorus members (tenor C. Michael Belle, soprano Mary Finch, soprano Claire Kelm, bass Bojan Knezevic, mezzo-soprano Sally Mouzon, mezzo-soprano Erin Neff, tenor Phillip Pickens, bass William Pickersgill, baritone Michael Rogers, soprano Carole Shaffer, baritone Jere Torkelsen and tenor Richard Walker) to create the Ensemble.

[Below: Mrs Lovett (Stephanie Blythe, lower right holding “Sold Out” sign) and Toby (Matthew Grills), second from right lower level) are overwhelmed by the demand for meat pies by the London populace (the Ensemble) as Sweeney Todd (Brian Mulligan, upper level) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


One should not underestimate the effect that these subsets of the chorus created in the Blakeley production. Each has functions similar to a Greek chorus in commenting on the action, although the Ensemble will at times take part in the action itself.

Lee Blakeley, Stephen Sondheim and the American Musical

I have commented elsewhere about the role that Director Francesca Zambello has had in promoting the vintage “non-miked” American musicals in the opera house. [See, for example, DVD Review: Francesca Zambello, the American Musical and the San Francisco Opera, Part I: “Show Boat”.]

Zambello’s productions of Kern’s “Show Boat” and George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” both have been artistic (and ticket-selling) successes in San Francisco Opera’s 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House.

[Below: Toby (Matthew Grills, left) decides to take the life of Sweeney Todd (Brian Mulligan, center) who has killed the Beggar Woman, whom he now knows was his wife Lucy (Elizabeth Futral, below, lying on ground); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


British Director Lee Blakeley has explored a somewhat different challenge, mounting the musical works of Stephen Sondheim, which rely heavily on amplification, in the opera house setting. [See Mounting the Big Shows: A Conversation with Director Lee Blakeley.]

The several Sondheim works mounted by Blakeley at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet – that, besides “Sweeney Todd” included “A Little Night Music”, “Into the Woods” and “Sunday in the Park With George”.

Each production was well-received by the Paris audiences, that had little experience with American musicals prior to the Chatelet’s Sondheim cycle, but which created interest in further exploring the American musical genre.

[Below: Director Lee Blakeley, in a photograph taken when directing Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” at the Scottish Opera; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Lee Blakeley.]


I was impressed with the sound of the “Sweeney Todd” production in the Brown Theater in the Houston’s Wortham Center, but was even more impressed at how felicitous the production’s sound is in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, having now heard it from two different vantage points in the orchestra section.

My original thoughts on the issue (certainly derived from trust in the theatrical instincts of Francesca Zambello and of Lee Blakeley) is that the great American musicals can be displayed at their best when using the resources of major opera companies – including the ability of those companies to bring together high quality solo voices, chorus and orchestra and to mount dramatic musical works with high production values.

The musicals themselves will help broaden the repertory in ways that will be popular with the traditional opera base, and will help introduce persons who appreciate American musicals to the wider repertory of offerings of opera companies.


I continue to enthusiastically recommend the Lee Blakeley production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and the San Francisco Opera cast, to the veteran operagoer, the person new to opera, and all who appreciate the American musical.

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