San Francisco Opera’s debut of ‘Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ suddenly encountered an empty orchestra pit when the musicians fled after the demon barber threatened to eat a fiddler or piccolo player in a pie. Patrick Summers the conductor remained to face the music alone. See the slideshow. ‘Sweeney Todd’ the cheerful revenge opera starring baritone Brian Mulligan and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe started out as a penny dreadful and you get what you pay for, you get your money’s worth and every penny of it. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House becomes a madhouse in 1860s London. Patrons hungry for a macabre tale with gallows humor and fiendish glee get that and then some, the gravy, along with some warnings about the nature of man to seek justice on his own and to exact more than his share. Most of the cast makes this production their role debut and each seems to relish the opportunity. It’s an English language, American production and to make clarity even better, each principal sings with a body microphone designed for the dialogue. David Gockley deserves 100 virgins for bringing this to San Francisco. Note Mulligan returns for another horror romp with the opera in The Fall of the House of Usher.
Related: Upscale horror this season
San Francisco stages for the first time this culinary masterpiece, the multi-Tony winner from Broadway, originally starring Angela Landsbury. Each and every role down to the amuse bouche comes with mouthwatering songs, particularly the finale to Act I, the pie song called ‘A Little Priest’, set up by the opening song ‘The Worst Pies in London’. The world knows of the reputation of English food and this takes the cake (sorry, couldn’t resist). This version, true to Sondheim’s original, goes way beyond four and twenty blackbirds. Goosebumps pop up from the first chords of the organs, promising woe. Simon Berry the organist for this production came from St. Dominic’s and is making his San Francisco Opera debut, although it’s short lived. But wait there’s more. Act II brings a spurt in business traffic at the barber shop and the pie shop below, illiciting by the amorous Mrs. Lovett, call her Nellie, her happy place song. Mrs. Lovett sings as she pampers her love the barber by soaking his feet in a tub and then dipping her toes in beside his, ‘By the Sea’. It’s her marriage proposal sung in juxtaposition to that of the lovestruck Anthony Hope’s legitimate love song, the beautiful ‘Johanna’. This production is based on the book by Hugh Wheeler and the adaptation by Christopher Bond.
If you loved the Tim Burton film you will love this even more as it’s all about the operatic power house singing of songs deserving and divine. As Greer Grimsley would say, they sing the Hell out of it. If you haven’t seen Stephanie Blythe since her Ring Cycle in Seattle, this will make you cry with joy and give you goosebumps. Really, seriously, goosebumps even in this San Francisco heatwave. It’s the ambrosial story of a lonely London meat pie baker Mrs. Lovett and her source, a Dickensian barber who returns with a vengeance after being transported for life by corrupt judge. Ghostly dancers in skeletal hoop skirts and raunchy pelvic thrusts in their dances tell the story of how Judge Turpin goes on to lure and assault the young bride he forces into desperation after Todd’s exile for life, the transportation to Australia from London.
The high and mighty one used his power along with his henchman The Beadle, Beadle Bamford played by AJ Glueckert, to isolate Todd’s beautiful young wife and the mother of his child. Yet as that child becomes a woman a young man catches a glimpse of her like a prince spying Rapunzel and vows to rescue and marry her. Baritone Elliot Madore, making a romantic and heroic debut at San Francisco Opera, plays Anthony Hope. He’s the tall, dark and handsome suitor with a plan.
Matthew Grills sings the touching and dark horse role of young boy Tobias or Toby Ragg, who is treated as such but appears to get his own surprise happy ending. Toby originally served as the malleable accomplice to Sweeney Todd’s nemesis, the huckster barber/dentist Pirelli, sung by David Curry. Get it, curry. That’s a hint. Curry makes a clever if brief debut at SF Opera with this.
Bass baritone Wayne Tigges plays the self-flagellating Scarpia of a judge. Guest conductor Patrick Summers conducts the orchestra and opera chorus. The chorus appears alternately and simultaneously as gowned inmates of Fogg’s insane asylum and pedestrian Londoners in heavy and drab period dress. The set and lighting are a match for the distressed costumes and make up. The set, a sort of dark and deadly Upstairs, Downstairs, sets the stage for real time and memory; for an exterior and interior simultaneously. The split stage looks smashing.
Heidi Stober sings the role of Johanna, the virginal and beautiful daughter of Todd whom the judge lusts after. Elizabeth Futral sings the role of the beggar woman who propositions each and every male who crosses her path, back handing them with rhymes such as this nautical quip (spoiler alert), hey sailor ‘dock it straight and say it lists to starboard.’ She offers culinary invitations as well, such as hey mister would you like to split my muffin.
‘Sweeney Todd’ runs to September 29, 2015. Running time of the performance is about 1 1/2 hours Act I then an hour for Act II with a 25 minute intermission. Tickets cost $40 to $320 for single tickets. Rush tickets cost $27 to $32 and patrons may now purchase on line. Click here: Rush tickets on line. Bicyclists have a new bike cage at Civic Center BART but no accommodations at the opera house. The War Memorial Opera House is at 301 Van Ness Avenue in Civic Center, a short walk from Civic Center BART. The 200 standing room tickets per performance cost $10 cash the day of the performance, limit two per person.
For more information: SF Opera