Sep. 23 SF Opera: Sweeney Todd

Brian Mulligan (top) as Sweeney Todd and Wayne Tigges as Judge Turpin in Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" (photo: Cory Weaver)

Brian Mulligan (top) as The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Wayne Tigges as Judge Turpin in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” (photo: Cory Weaver)

Amplification problems aside, SF Opera’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ a bloody good show

Stephanie Blythe’s role as Mrs. Lovett was a triumph eclipsing all others and recalling the great Angela Lansbury

By James Sohre
Contributing writer

It is hard to argue with the boisterous, enthusiastic reception given San Francisco Opera’s Sweeney Todd. But let me try.

A preeminent cast, an idiomatic reading in the pit and a remarkably well-directed staging almost made up for the patchy and uneven amplification and sound design that plagued the production through much of the night.

I am not sure if the orchestra was mixed or not, but it surely was in the original — where Jonathan Tunick’s incisive scoring sounded masterful. One thing for sure when it was scored back then: Sweeney did not need to consider balance with the singers, since they were also miked. 

When I saw the original Sweeney I remember understanding every clever word that Sondheim penned, even the devilish patter sections. But at SF Opera — with body mikes and surtitles showing every lyric and every line of dialogue (yes, the dialogue too!) and with wholly commendable English diction — there were stretches that were inexplicably unintelligible.

This said, there were some noteworthy efforts in this production.

Conductor Patrick Summers, who displayed a flawless sense of theater and paced the cues and underscoring meticulously, conducted with loving detail. He made the orchestra a full partner in the Gothic “dramedy” on stage. The organ was imposing and ominous, the winds were plaintive and playful and the brass explosive and shrill. The strings ran the gamut from a mellow cushion of sound to the screaming-scraping-screeching terror effects of Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett (photo: Cory Weaver)

Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett (photo: Cory Weaver)

If there was a stand out performance that completely exceeded expectations, it was Stephanie Blythe as a memorable Mrs. Lovett. Blythe made the bold and brilliant choice not to try and make Lovett sound like Fricka slumming as an ersatz Broadway belter. Instead, she approached the role as a singer of musical comedy — with a sassy, sometimes rasping delivery that recalls the originator, Angela Lansbury. Blythe’s forays into head voice were well managed, and the bouncing, airy and air-headed “hoo-hoo” phrases in By the Sea nailed the laugh every time.

It was even more astounding to me that Blythe is such an effortless, idiomatic comic actress. With a consistent cockney accent, she knew her way around every joke, be it the set up, the payoff, the knowing double take or the innate ability to know how to hold for laughs. As played by Blythe, this role was a triumph — eclipsing all others and equaling my memory of the divine Lansbury. I’m not sure she should continue to sing this unguarded and open. But for the moment, Stephanie Blythe is giving us the time of our lives.

Brian Mulligan in the title role of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" (photo: Cory Weaver)

Brian Mulligan in the title role of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” (photo: Cory Weaver)

Brian Mulligan proved an excellent match to Blythe as the titular barber. The role is a Big Sing, and Mr. Mulligan has a big, searing, burly baritone housed in a big bear of a strapping physique that fills the part like nobody’s business. He, too, takes risks, and finds tremendous abandon in what is (dare I say it?) a “cutting edge” performance. His was such a forceful, seething approach I worried for his vocal health as he rasped a few sustained high notes in Epiphany. My fears however were short-lived when thereafter he continued to sing with a controlled and pleasant the rest of the evening.

I’ve enjoyed Heidi Stober’s enchanting, silvery soprano on several occasions, and her Johanna did not disappoint. Stober is petite, lovely, and comports herself beautifully as the imprisoned young ward. Green Finch and Linnet Bird was a model of floated phrases and endearing legato.

Eliot Madore (Anthony) has grown substantially as an artist since last I saw him. Madore’s baritone still has its freshness and appealing warmth, but he has further developed an imposing core to the sound that serves him especially well in the rhapsodic exultations of Johanna. And he has also refined a charming stage savvy that has taken him from being merely good-looking to being Madore-able. Eliot and Heidi struck some heated sparks between them and made the young couple far more interesting and empathetic than I thought possible.

Matthew Grills embodied Tobias to a T, morphing from the naive subservient of his opening pages to the more assured would-be protector he strives to become. Mr. Grills’s handsome lyric tenor was a perfect fit for Not While I’m Around. Indeed, he and Blythe turned that entire scene into the jewel of the production  — a moment so sublimely perfect the audience sat in hushed wonder until bursting into a sustained ovation.

David Curry proved to be a seasoned Pirelli, and his sturdy tenor was supple and accurate. Curry however was least well-served by the variable sound “enhancement” — his requisite accent and patter falling victim to muddy settings. Playing against type, A.J. Glueckert was a wiry, scrappy Beadle Bamford, and he had no trouble dispatching the role’s high-flying demands.

The venerable soprano Elizabeth Futral did everything required of her as the crazed Beggar Woman. Too bad that so little is required of her in the way of refined soprano singing, at which she excels. An arioso that has been added for the character in the final encounter with Todd did little to make the character more effective, in spite of Futral’s expertise. Similarly, Deliver Me — cut from the Broadway production — adds length but not interest to the character of Judge Turpin, here taken with complete dramatic and musical investment by Wayne Tigges. Tigges has a penetrating, powerhouse of a baritone, and his imperious delivery and scornful tone made for a full-blooded adversary.

Production Designer Tanya McCallin has created a massive, hulking, brooding multi-leveled structure that dominates the playing space. As imposing and immobile as the basic set appears, it is highly adaptable to suggest and enable the story’s many different locales. Through clever manipulation of doors and shutters and fly systems, subtle changes are effective as windows are exposed, as doors reveal or conceal, and as wagons and set pieces roll on and off with fluid ease.

Lighting Director Rick Fisher’s skillful deployment of contrasting color palettes and careful isolation of locales did much to keep a lighter feel to the grim plot, and provided much needed variation in the gloom of the scenery. The costumes were appropriate, as well, and fitted the basic personality of the wearer. I especially liked the insouciant look for the shyster Pirelli and the lethal-yet-somewhat-sexily-maternal looks for Mrs. Lovett. Jeanne Parham’s Wig and Makeup design cannot be overpraised for its excellent character delineations.

Director Lee Blakely not only honors the signature moments of traditional productions but also invents some intriguing details of his own. Sure-fire crowd-pleasers like A Little Priest were played with admirable clarity and directness. The invented sexual consummation of the young couple’s relationship was plausible and intriguing. The subtle physicalization of Mrs. Lovett’s sexual appetite and intentions was revelatory. Best of all, Blakely moved his large cast around the environs with purpose and clarity. Ian Robertson’s well-tutored chorus was the final “major character” on the roster, singing with conviction and distinction.

James Sohre recently completed a 40-year career with US Army Entertainment, much of it spent in Germany as the Command-level Entertainment Chief. He continues to travel extensively and write about opera and musical events. He is production coordinator for Opera Las Vegas and heads the Young Artists program for which he just directed “A Passion for Puccini,” an evening of staged arias and scenes from all of Puccini’s works.

Details Box:
What: Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, directed by Francesca Zambello
Who: San Francisco Opera
Where: San Francisco, CA
Performance reviewed: Sep. 23, 2015

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