Todd and Mrs Lovett

David Arnsperger as Sweeney Todd and Janis Kelly who excels as Mrs Lovett. Pictures: Johan Persson

Sweeney Todd

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

THE moral of the tale is don’t buy meat pies from anywhere remotely near a barber’s shop.

Urban legend is full of tales of takeaways and restaurants with a penchant for serving up cat or dog as beef, pork or whatever it says on the menu; Dickens referred to such establishments several times and in 1846, in A string of Pearls, a serialised tale in Victorian penny dreadful, The People's Periodical and Family Library, the legend of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, was born.

Jump forward to 1979 and Stephen Sondheim turned the tale of the close shave serial killer cum pieman not only into a musical but gave Todd a backstory to explain how he was driven by grief and revenge when, as Benjamin Barker, he was transported to Australia on trumped up charges by a judge who wanted his wicked way with the barber’s wife.

His wife, he is told, killed herself after being raped by the judge, which gave his lordship a double dollop of revenge coming his way.

Of all Sondheim’s many musicals this is the nearest to opera, with less than a quarter of the production, with book by Hugh Wheeler, spoken, although the music and lyrics are unquestionjohannaably Sondheim, a style we have seen develop since his first break as the lyricist for West Side Story. Sondheim was second choice incidentally after Betty Comden and Adolph Green had turned it down.

So it is perhaps the ideal vehicle for Welsh National Opera to dip their toe into the world of musicals for the first time, and what a fine job they have made of it.

Soraya Mafi as Sweeney Todd’s daughter, and Judge Turpin’s ward, Johanna.

WNO go for big productions, with big, larger than life sets and this is no exception with Todd’s barber’s shop a shipping container stacked on another which constitutes the bake house where clients are . . . serviced; three times to make them sweeter. One pull of the lever in his chair and down they go.

Two more containers which slide in and out, and like Todd’s short back and slides emporium, with opening ends and walls, provide the Judge’s house where Todd’s daughter Johanna had become the Judge’s ward – and was in danger of becoming another notch on the Judge’s lecherous bedpost as she grows into womanhood.

It is a very clever set from Colin Richmond and director James Brining has moved the setting from 1846 to somewhere the 1970s with Mrs Lovett’s pie shop a sort of run down burger bar selling The Worst Pies in London.

Angela Lansbury won a Tony for best actress in a musical as Mrs Lovett in the original Broadway production and it is easy to see why, it is a marvellous part and here Janis Kelly steals the show not only with a splendid soprano voice but also some glorious comic timing. It really is a magnificent performance bringing the character to vivid life. You could have forgiven her anything by the end . . . but you would still have passed on the pies.

David Arnsperger is a less likeable character as Todd. You can sympathise with his predicament but this is a bloke so consumed by revenge it has eaten away his humanity. Arnsperger’s background is in both musical theatre and opera in his native Germany, and is making his debut with WNO displaying a fine baritone voice and a nice touch of black humour as he sings thoughtfully as he despatches his customers.

Steven Page is a thoroughly unlikeable Judge Turpin with a nice deep voice and wonderful portrayal of a blast from the past Victorian melodrama baddie. We even have him judge and beadleflagellating himself along to Johanna – Mea Culpa as he tries to calm the hormones raging at the sight of the developing Johanna.

His henchman Beadle Bamford is sung by Aled Hall in a sort of enforcer role, although he does soften a little with a singalong on Mrs Lovett’s harmonium with Sweet Polly Plunkett and an amusing The Tower of Bray. One hopes he makes pies less tough than he appears to be.

Steven Page as Judge Turpin and Aled Hall as Beadle Bamford

The link between all of them is Johanna Barker, daughter of Todd and ward – and desire – of  the Judge and sung beautifully by Lancastrian Soraya Mafi.

Then we have Anthony Hope, a sailor who rescued Todd from a shipwreck on his way home, and who muddies the waters even more by falling in love with Johanna and wanting to run away with her – which gives him the worst two enemies he could imagine, Todd and the Judge. Sung in a fine voice by Jamie Muscato, he is another with a musical theatre background rather than opera.

Among the supporting characters we have flashy Italian barber Pirelli, selling a miraculous hair restorer, who arrives in a Reliant Robin with a nice homage to Del Boy as he leaves. A dramatic tenor who could happily find a job advertising insurance, Pirelli is sung by Paul Charles Clarke and we discover the snake oil salesman is as Italian as the Liver birds when he tries to blackmail Todd.

Not a wise move; it leads to new careers for both of them, Todd’s starter for 10 as a mass murderer and Pirelli as a pie filling.

Then there is Tobias Ragg, sung by George Ure, making his debut with WNO after a career in theatre. Toby is the simple gofer for Pirelli, taken in by Mrs Lovett when his boss disappears, and outside in the cold and dark, drifting in and out of the unfolding tale is the bag lady, begging her way through London asking first for money and then offering her highly dubious sexual favours with more enthusiasm than eroticism.

She is a wretched old bundle of rags, sadly only knitting with one needle, scorned by everyone yet with a terrible secret that could have changed the course of the whole tale; she is played and sung with a touching air of desperation and desolation by Charlotte Page.

They are supported by the usual excellent WNO chorus who delight in representing Bedlam on stage as the audience enter, a preview of a later scene when Anthony enters the infamous mental institution to rescue the incarcerated Johanna.

And of course the WNO Orchestra were enjoying themselves immensely playing a musical theatre inspired rather than opera score, under conductor James Southall.

WNO are not the first opera company to take on Sweeney Todd, Houston Grand Opera first staged it in 1984 and it was strange to see a WNO production with talking and no surtitles but as a performance it brought opera and musical theatre together in a wonderful piece of theatre that is well worth seeing. To 21-11-15

Roger Clarke

19-11-15 

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