Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the first performance of the second production in its 93rd season, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This began as a Broadway musical, albeit an exceptional one, since its massive resource demands made any out-of-town tryout performances out of the question. It opened at the Uris Theater (larger than most Broadway houses) on March 1, 1979.
The show saw the return of one of Broadway’s most successful partnerships, the teaming of stage director Harold Prince with composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Hugh Wheeler provided the book by adapting a play of the same name by Christopher Bond. That season Sweeney Todd was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won eight of them. The show itself was awarded Best Musical and other awards went to Wheeler, Sondheim, and Prince. Len Cariou, in the title role, received Best Performance by a Leading Actor in the Musical. The leading actress role was that of Mrs. Lovett, and Angela Lansbury received the corresponding Best Performance award.
It did not take long for the word to spread that Sweeney Todd was no ordinary musical. The very idea of the show set tongues wagging with its break from “usual entertainment.” The hero was a serial killer, while his partner sold meat pies at a time when quality meat was scarce and expensive. Turning the former into a “supplier” for the latter flew in the face of audience beliefs about what one would get for the high price of a theater ticket.
However, the tale of Sweeney Todd, so to speak, did not end with its impact on musical theater entertainment. Before David Gockley was SFO General Director, he held the same position at the Houston Grand Opera; and he engaged Prince to stage the work as an opera production. This included replacing the original “pit band” with resources for a new orchestration by Jonathan Tunick. The resulting opera was first performed in June of 1984 with George Hearn in the title role playing opposite Lansbury. (They had performed together in the Sweeney Todd touring company.)
Now Gockley has had a hand in bringing a new version of Sweeney Todd to the opera stage, this time in an SFO production shared with the Théâtre de Châtelet (where it was first performed) and the Houston Grand Opera. The new staging is by Lee Blakeley, and this is his SFO debut production. The title role is being sung by baritone Brian Mulligan, and mezzo Stephanie Blythe is singing Mrs. Lovett.
Those familiar with Prince’s production know that it was a visual feast, complete with movable sets enabling action on multiple levels and abundant bloodshed in the Grand Guignol tradition. Blakeley’s approach clearly honors Prince’s legacy but also takes better account of the larger expanse of an opera stage. There is more of a sense of multiple venues of concurrent action and less attention to clever reassembly of pieces of the set that made Prince’s vision so striking as to sometimes upstage the narrative.
Still, the key player in this whole affair is Sondheim himself. As a creative artist responsible for both music and words, he has come up with a score that rises above a vast majority of English-language operas that have been created over the last half century. His mastery of the rhymed couplet is so compelling that one does not simply follow his words but is drawn into them. When his words describe the most ghastly elements of the tale, they also are at their most seductive. Those words are then reinforced by a musical language rich with character-defining motifs (but in a manner significantly different from that of Richard Wagner), powerful rhetorical devices (Sondheim has put his personal stamp on ostinato in the service of narrative), and the occasional cross-reference (particularly the plainchant for the “Dies Irae” hymn).
Among the interpreters, Blythe had the greatest challenge, given how firmly Lansbury had established her approach to Mrs. Lovett. Blythe rose to that challenge and triumphed. Much of her cockney accent was written out with appropriate spelling in Sondheim’s score, but Blythe delivered all the right words with all the right inflections. She also had the same delightful timing during the “discovery of the new meat source” scene, which leads up to the duet “Have a Little Priest.”
Blakely decided that, unlike Prince, he did not want Todd to appear like a horror-movie character from the very beginning. Mulligan thus endowed the role with a human element that is always battling with cynicism. This allows the unfolding of Todd’s past to register with greater impact on a more sympathetic audience stance. Once the killing starts, it is no ordinary matter of revenge but rather an almost inevitable reaction to too many twists of fate in the wrong direction.
Beyond the leads this is an opera with a very large cast, and saying too much about the other characters risks jeopardizing many of the surprise elements in the plot. Suffice it to say that Blakely did not neglect any of these characters, many of whom where more sharply developed than they had been under Prince. On the direction side one also must not forget Patrick Summers, leading resources that alternated between chamber music intimacy and the richness of a full ensemble. That richness was further reinforced by the preparation of Chorus Director Ian Robertson.
Taken as a whole, this new production of Sweeney Todd is a highly satisfying step beyond the work’s original conception and is likely to be recalled as a high point of the 2015–16 SFO season.