Sweeney Todd by the Victorian Opera

Sweeney Todd
The Playhouse, the Arts Centre, Melbourne
7:30pm Friday 17 July

piesIs Sweeney Todd an opera? It’s really an irrelevant question. After all, constraining it in theatrical typology would deny the multiple elements that comprise it: melodrama, pantomime, operetta, the American Musical, and perhaps opera. On first listening I thought Sondheim had created musical stylings wholly specific to this work – a kind of Wagnerian, quasi-through composed musical drama. However, a close reading of the score reveals multiple borrowings, from the traditional Broadway march of the apprentice Tobias (‘Pirelli’s Miracle Eliir’), the Waltz (‘A Little Priest’), and even a tango (‘Wait’). There are some self-consciously avant-garde numbers (‘The Letter’) – but who goes home remembering them?

Sondheim and his book writer Hugh Wheeler describe the work as a ‘Musical Thriller’, and thrilling is perhaps the best descriptor. The audience at the preview I attended was often beset by nervous laughter in response to the sheer energy emanating from behind the proscenium (and sometimes in front – a note in the programme informs patrons in the front stalls that ‘the blood does wash out’!). Who else but Teddy Tahu Rhodes, who seems to have a motorcycle engine in place of a larynx, to realise the blood-curdling cries of the protagonist. More surprising is the success of lyric soprano Antoinette Halloran’s Mrs Lovett, more at home in the stratospheric pealings of Madame Butterfly than throaty belting.

Some recent productions have emphasised the seeming breadth of the work, rescoring for full orchestra and filling out stages that more easily accommodate Les Hugenots (Houston Grand Opera for one). The sets are detailed, and the costumes resemble Les Misérables. Thankfully the Victorian Opera ignored this trap – perhaps more for budgetary reasons – making do with an orchestra of twelve and a chorus of eleven. Likewise the set does not emphasise the broader society through space than the claustrophobia of Sweeney’s mind. This is a much better fit for Sondheim’s score, which like Berg’s Wozzeck, can be interpreted as ordinary, diatonic music ‘dipped in molten lead’ (to borrow a phrase from John Deathridge) to reflect Sweeney’s perception of his world – the world of Sweeney Todd is presented to us as it appears to Sweeney. Hear how he transforms Anthony’s pronouncement about the pleasures of London:

London Anthony

Another strength of the production was the interpretation of the juvenile leads – Anthony and Joanna. Joanna always seemed to me an unlikely heroine: underwritten, she sings sweetly, but presents little more drive than the birds she resembles. Stuart Maunder’s direction emphasised her hysteria through movement explicitly (seriously, who when escaping their lecherous guardian thinks of their reticule). You wonder how Anthony, who is perhaps Sondheim’s wettest character and her will fare after the curtain falls (so to speak).

The message of the work is clear – the mechanisation of society in the early-eighteenth century caused a mechanisation of people; a collective loss of humanity (and much Nietzschean angst). Todd and Mrs Lovett are simply doing what society had been doing, grinding up people to sustain a few privileged others. The philosophy is Marxism crossed with Nihilism.

In all of the whole human race, Mrs Lovett,
There are two kinds of men, and only two.
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face. Look at me, Mrs Lovett, look at you!

And later:

The lives of the wicked should be made brief!
For the rest of us, death will be a relief!

A review of the Dickensian conditions the vast majority of the newly settled working class in the Industrial cities of England would have to concur with Todd – these were lives where perhaps death would have been a relief. The original production of Todd emphasised these elements in the set design, with factory images predominating:

Or Tim Burton’s 2007 film, with the opening credits following blood from the rooftops to the sewers by way of the pie-making machinery (cross reference with Wozzeck Act 3 Scene 3 where Wozzeck is unable to rid himself of his wife’s blood):

The VO’s set was a bit more indistinct – I couldn’t decide if it was a warehouse or an inn. However, the chorus were appropriately directed to reflect the broken society – and thankfully didn’t resort to stereotyped movements (now we’re shouting, because we are the chorus!) that beset the VO’s Flying Dutchman earlier this year.

Sweeney Todd – 16-25 July, tickets from the Arts Centre

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