ENO describes this stunning production of Sweeney Todd as semi-staged. It is a tribute to the show and its performers that by the end of an evening of theatrical magic we have forgotten that Mrs Lovett’s Pie Shop is just a couple of chairs and a chest. The programme notes also refer to the old question about the difference between a musical and an opera. Well, this masterpiece by Sondheim really does make that question seem irrelevant. The fact that the two main roles are performed by an opera singer and a film actor – and that this does, if anything, enhance the drama – underlines that a great work of art makes artificial boundaries seem nonsensical.
The origins of the tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, are murky. In Sondheim’s version, Sweeney is a tragic victim of injustice whose thirst for revenge leads him to actions which spiral out of control and into serial murder. It is Mrs Lovett, whose thwarted desire for Sweeney is so well played by Emma Thompson, whose twisted ideas shift the tone from a revenge tragedy to out-and-out horror. It is only when Sweeney’s plans to punish the man who had him transported to the penal colony of Australia go awry that he resorts to the indiscriminate use of his cut-throat razor.
The production works brilliantly. This version, first seen at the Lincoln Center in New York, begins with the stage set as if for a white tie concert with the orchestra on stage and a series of microphone stands lined up in front of them. The performers start with their scores on music stands but one by one they throw down the stands and strip off their concert costumes. The action then takes place on an apron stage at the front and on walkways and platforms in amongst the orchestra. There is a colourful backdrop and banners are unfurled from the stage boxes.
All the publicity for the production has strongly featured the two stars – Bryn Terfel as Sweeney and Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett. It really is a chalk and cheese pairing but it works. Terfel’s voice is perfect for the role – he is miked like the other singers but this only enhances the rich tone of his deep notes. “Epiphany” really strikes home. He is not the greatest of actors but to the key moments of drama he brings a sinister stillness that really does convey the threat of vengeful carnage. Emma Thompson is a consummate comic actor and she finds every note of humour in her lines. She sings well enough when she has lines that can be delivered in a talking style – but, in the dramatic moments, her higher notes are not pretty. For the best sort of “musical” singing Rosalie Craig as the Beggar Woman is the real deal. We also get top quality support from Philip Quast as Judge Turpin and Jack North as Tobias.
The chorus singers are not ENO regulars. They are from the musical stage and they give a blistering account of Sondheim’s big numbers. But they do get the full ENO orchestra to help them along. The ENO orchestra looked as if they were having a great time and they sounded great – the conductor, David Charles Abell, must take a lot of the credit for helping them to adapt to a different set of demands with total assurance.
This is a memorable Sweeney – it is an inventive staging with two star performances. Let’s hope London gets another fully staged production before too long.