I must confess I have always preferred my horror on an intimate scale. That means a television set rather than a multiplex and, most particularly, Stephen Sondheim’s macabre masterwork, “Sweeney Todd,” as a chamber opera, rather than a Broadway musical. Some of the best outings of this 1979 multi-Tony Award-winning work I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few over the years, have been in small spaces: the splendid San Francisco Symphony semi-staging with Patti LuPone and George Hearn in 2001, John Doyle’s quirky revival (which had the characters doubling as orchestral musicians), a PBS production with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel and even a modest local theater production in Highland Park, Ill., that swept the Chicago theater awards back in the day.
That said, there is a case to be made for “Sweeney” as grand opera. And San Francisco Opera is making it very well. Director Lee Blakeley’s production points up the Victorian penny-dreadful aspect of the tale (from which the adaptors, Sondheim and writer Hugh Wheeler took their text). A kind of comic book — sans pictures — for the newly literate Brits of the Industrial Revolution, the penny dreadfuls were hair-raising stories which hooked readers and then charged a penny for the next installment. And such was “A String of Pearls,” which told the tale of a vengeful barber who slit his customers’ throats until the sewers of London ran red, the tale of Sweeney Todd. The huge, bleak setting by Tanya McCallin, inhabited by the large SF Opera chorus as Londoners, as well as the chilling opening organ chords, make you eager to hand over your pennies to see what happens next.
And there is something to be said for hearing Sondheim’s magnificent score delivered by a full opera orchestra, in this case brightly conducted by Patrick Summers, a fine chorus and skilled operatically trained singer-actors. Chief among those were baritone Brian Mulligan, excellent, if relentlessly bleak, in the title role, and the great mezzo Stephanie Blythe as his adoring accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, she who grinds up the victims and bakes them into the best meat pies in London. Yes, I’ve seen Angela Lansbury, but Blythe’s interpretation of the part, her wicked sense of humor shining through Sondheim’s equally wicked lyrics, showcases her abilities as a crossover artist, Azucena one day and Mama Rose the next. Brava!
In secondary, but no less important, roles, pretty, bright-voiced soprano Heidi Stober, a rising star in the operatic firmament, was a lovely Johanna, Sweeney’s long-lost daughter who is being held a virtual captive by the lecherous Judge Turpin (Wayne Tigges), the very villain who had Todd deported and then ruined his wife before throwing her out on the street. What is left of that, once beautiful, wife is hauntingly inhabited by Elizabeth Futral, who drifts in and out of the scene as the Beggar Woman. Canadian tenor Elliot Madore is an ardent Anthony, the young sailor who longs to rescue Johanna, and AJ Glueckert is a particularly good Beadle Bamford, the judge’s henchman.
Special mention should be made of Matthew Grills as Toby, Mrs. Lovett’s assistant and stand-in child, whose “Not While I’m Around” brought down the house. Only problem was that he looked much too old for the role.
The score? Oh that music! Some of it, like the duet “Pretty Women,” sung by Sweeney and the judge, is pure lyrical Sondheim. A lot of it, like “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that opens and closes the piece is purely chilling. And some is just for fun. “Have a Little Priest,” brings down the Act I curtain on a boisterous wave of hilarity that lightens up much that has gone before and Act II opens on a similar high note as Mrs. Lovett celebrates the success of her new meat pie recipe. Both numbers showcase the comic and vocal talents of Ms. Blythe.
But, in spite of the laughter, there are buckets of blood to come as Sweeney enacts his tormented revenge, not only on his enemies, but on almost everyone who has the misfortune to wander into his tonsorial parlor. At the end, there are more bodies littering the stage than in the conclusion to “Hamlet.” But that’s the tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.