Opera Warhorses

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Review: Greer Grimsley Stars in Christopher Alden’s Staging of “Sweeney Todd” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 4, 2016

August 6th, 2016

For six seasons the Glimmerglass Festival has devoted one of its four component operas to musical theater. The selection for 2016 was arguably the most ambitious, Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”.

Greer Grimsley’s Sweeney Todd

Louisiana bass-baritone Greer Grimsley’s dramatic skills and power voice make him one of the most sought after of operatic performers [see Ambassador for Opera: An Interview with Bass-Baritone Greer Grimsley].

No stranger to villainous roles [see Review: A Top Notch “Tosca” from Alexia Voulgaridou, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Greer Grimsley – San Diego Opera, February 13, 2016] Grimsley’s gripping portrayal of the revenge-driven Todd was masterful, with high points in Grimsley’s delivery of Todd’s These are my Friends, sung to his steel razors, and Epiphany, in which Todd declares that “we all deserve to die”.

[Below: Greer Grimsley as Sweeney Todd, admiring his “friends”, his steel razors; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Luretta Bybee’s Mrs Lovett

Mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee assayed the role of the sociopathic Mrs Lovett, whose devises the plan of baking Sweeney Todd’s victims into meat pies. One of the iconic roles in late 20th century musical theater, the role provided ample opportunity for Bybee to display her comic skills, from her introductory Worst Pies in London to A Little Priest, her showstopper with Grimsley’s Todd, to her hilarious performance of By the Sea.

[Below: Luretta Bybee as Mrs Lovett; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Harry Greenleaf’s Anthony Hope

Of the nine principal roles, five are performed by Glimmerglass Young Artists, including Michigan baritone Harry Greenleaf in the lead role of Anthony Hope. Greenleaf’s silky baritone was enlisted for the show’s most famous melody, Johanna.

[Below: Anthony Hope (Harry Greenleaf, right) sings his love song to Johanna (Emily Pogorelc, left); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Emily Pogorelc’s Johanna Barker

Young artist Wisconsin soprano Emily Pogorelc was Sweeney’s abducted daughter Johanna. She sang Johanna’s major aria Green Finch and Linnet Bird with charm.

[Below: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.


Nicholas Nestorak’s Toby

Michigan tenor Nicholas Nestorak skillfully performed the Tobias (Toby) Raggs’ tongue twisting Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir. Nestorak’s Toby is easily the most sympathetic of the several characters who engage in murder and other criminal activities.

[Below: Toby (Nicholas Nestorak, right) makes an extravagant gesture, which brings pleasure to Mrs Lovett (Luretta Bybee, left); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Peter Volpe’s Judge Turpin

New York bass Peter Volpe was a sonorous Judge Turpin. Volpe brilliantly performed the role of “Sweeney Todd’s” true villain, who like Scarpia in “Tosca”, hypocritically uses his public position to advance his personal lust. In this production, his sexual attraction to his “ward”, Johanna, has a particularly sinister edge.

Volpe’s artistry has been evident in projects associated with Glimmerglass Festival’s general director Francesca Zambello [See, for example, Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013.]

[Below: Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Christopher Bozeka’s Adolfo Pirelli

Ohio tenor Christoper Bozeka, who possesses a classic large lyric tenor voice, gave an (appropriately) over-the-top performance as the charlatan barber Adolfo Pirelli, whose threat to expose Todd resulted in his becoming Todd’s first victim.

[Below: Chistopher Bozeka as Adolfo Pirelli; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]



Patricia Schuman’s The Beggar Woman, Bille Bruley’s Beadle Bamford and the Musical Performance

California soprano Patricia Schuman, whose mastery of “character roles” has made her a favorite of Glimmerglass audiences [see Review: Tobias Picker’s “American Tragedy”, Extensively Revised, Debuts at Glimmerglass Festival – July 20, 2014] made a strong impression as The Beggar Woman, whom we know is Sweeney Todd’s wife that Todd thought was long dead.

[Below: Patricia Schuman as The Beggar Woman; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Texas tenor Bille Bruley gave a lively performance as Judge Turpin’s operative, Beadle Bamford.

Ohio conductor John DeMain, one of the pre-eminent and most respected of conductors of American operas and musicals, led the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in a rousing performance, that supported the high quality vocal artistry of the nine principal singers.

Sweeney Todd” in the Opera House: Alternative Ideas

In the debate as to the best way to perform “Sweeney Todd” in an opera house, DeMain has expressed his belief that the work should be done in smaller venues, such as the Glimmerglass Festival’s 900+ seat Alice Busch Theater, instead of the typical large American opera houses.

In his comments on the work in the program notes, DeMain writes “When you train to sing opera, you train to make that huge sound, and there is a kind of artifice that gets put into place. The idea is to have your technique so developed that you know how to be heard and still sound direct, honest and real”. DeMain argues that direct communication from singers to audience in a smaller venue is the proper way to enjoy Sondheim’s complex musical score.

Although “Sweeney  Todd” was written to be electronically amplified, the Glimmerglass production was unmiked, except for passages of spoken dialogue. This places it in direct contrast to other productions of Sondheim’s opera, most specifically Lee Blakeley’s production seen recently in Paris, Houston and San Francisco, discussed below in the context of the physical production.

Christopher Alden’s Production

New York director Christopher Alden created a production that attempted to corral the opera’s complex scenic demands into the Busch Theater’s relatively small stage, sometimes with all principals and chorus onstage together, shifting from one scene to the next by such devices as moving chairs.

[Below: the Glimmerglass Festival Ensemble in the Christopher Alden production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


I have long admired Alden’s directorial brilliance [see Review: An Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope” – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 2014 and Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010] and very much liked several features of the Glimmerglass production.

I’m also on record as an advocate for what might be regarded as the polar opposite of this production – Lee Blakeley’s production, recently performed in the opera houses of Paris, Houston, and San Francisco. That massive production accommodated intracacies of Sondheim’s plot not adequately addressed in the Alden production – notably the processes by which the bodies of Todd’s victims became the ingredients of Mrs Lovett’s pastries.

In contrast to Glimmerglass’ Alden production, Blakeley’s was the largest production ever to be mounted by the Houston Grand Opera [see Review: “Sweeney Todd” at Houston Grand Opera: Nathan Gunn, Director Lee Blakeley Make a Compelling Case for Sondheim as Opera, April 24, 2015], and the second largest production ever to be mounted by San Francisco Opera [Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015.]

If one were in agreement that the Blakeley approach was the appropriate way of mounting the opera, then one might conclude that, despite DeMain’s eloquent defense of presenting the opera on a smaller stage, that producing “Sweeney Todd” is a project whose requirements are perhaps too large for the existing resources of the Glimmerglass Festival’s Alice Busch Theater.


I recommend the musical performance of “Sweeney Todd”, including the insightful conducting of John DeMain.

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