By Jessica Cornish
In celebrating their 10th birthday, Victorian Opera have chosen to end their Stephen Sondheim trilogy that began in 2013 with the famous musical horror Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet St, directed by Stuart Maunder.
Sweeney Todd (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) is a man seeking revenge on Judge Turpin (Philip Rhodes) for the wrongful imprisonment that separated him from his beautiful wife and child, Johanna (Amelia Berry). Escaping colony convict life, Todd returns an obsessed and disillusioned man, and in a cruel and unforgiving society crumbling into filth and poverty, loses his humanity and becomes a serial killer alongside his infatuated accomplice, Mrs Lovett (Antoinette Halloran). They promptly make a business of slitting the throats of barbershop customers and baking them in to pies. Meanwhile, Todd’s estranged daughter is locked away by her adopted guardian the Judge, and a lovesick boy Anthony Hope (Blake Bowden) tries to free Johanna from the lecherous man planning to marry his ward.
Victorian Opera debutant but Melbourne music-theatre favourite Teddy Rhodes has a beautiful rich voice, and his strong brooding frame demanded attention at all times; however, for the first act he seemed a little wooden and detached (even for Todd) when delivering his few lines. Halloran was a triumphant highlight of the show: her singing was always clear, well-executed and perfectly acted, providing black humour throughout the night. Her Mrs Lovett was all at once funny, revolting, and greedy yet still managed to gain the sympathy of the audience. Another standout performance was soprano Berry as Johanna, who effortlessly and accurately glided through her notoriously difficult songs and had amazing vocal clarity and control. Finally, Kanen Breen as Beadle Bamford definitely needs a mention for his hilarious performance as the snarky Judge’s companion, with a killer falsetto that reared itself spectacularly in the second act.
The ensemble are highly participatory throughout the performance, reminiscent of a Greek chorus narrating and commentating on the action unfolding. In this production, the ensemble’s well-executed diction was truly impressive because of the rapid-fire of lyrics and intense musical and narrative demands, whereupon for the most part every word was heard even amongst the complex rounds of verses. The famous Sondheim score is lyrically rich, metrically unstable, dissonant and riddled with constant tension. Under Phoebe Brigg‘s astute musical direction, even songs seemingly beautiful and sweet were laced with vengeance and murder, always leaving the audience deliciously uncomfortable and on edge.
The clarity of the audio designed by Jim Atkins was excellent: however the balance between the orchestra and the vocals was often slightly off, leaving the occasional vocal lines difficult to hear, while the infamous eerie factory whistle was literally painful to listen to and, with patrons covering their ears, really needs to be turned down. Philip Lethlean‘s atmospheric lighting was harsh, using cool washes, up-lighting, and at times, one dimensional angles to give a real horror feel, and adding to the unease of Fleet St. The sets by Rodger Kirk were simple yet adequate, and were easily and smoothly manipulated on a scene-to-scene basis (with just the one bed that seemed to be stuck on stage for a little extra time than required).
Sweeney Todd is a thrilling and enthralling musical, and with a difficult score for the regular music-theatre or operatic performer, it is not often as vocally perfected as it is here by the Victorian Opera. The opening night performance was an absolute pleasure to see and hear, and as the ‘Demon Barber’ isn’t a steady theatre standard, I warmly suggest everyone go see this musical operetta. (Just make sure that if you are purchasing or picking up ticketson the day to arrive at least half an hour in advance due to very long lines, and even more importantly make sure you are in the correct venue! Many people, including myself were ushered into the wrong theatres within the Arts Centre, so I almost saw West Side Story, another Sondheim classic, last night!)
Victorian Opera’s Sweeney Todd is playing at the Playhouse in The Arts Centre until July 25, 2015. Tickets from $50, bookings via http://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/opera/sweeney-todd
Image by Jeff Busby