Tag Archives: Stephen Sondheim

Voices Carry Droll ‘Sweeney’

Operatoonity.com review: Sweeney Todd presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Saturday, July 9, 2016, 8:00 p.m.
Venue: Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, NY
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
4.0 out of 5.0 stars

4-stars

 

Members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Each year, Glimmerglass Festival organizers solicit suggestions for upcoming seasons. I suggested Sweeney Todd several times in previous years. Granted, once I learned Sweeney Todd was on the 2016 bill, this reviewer’s expectations were off the chart. Imagine operatically trained voices handling a score that can prove daunting to strictly musical theater companies.

And the sublime voices in @GOpera’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s dark and tragic opus Sweeney Todd absolutely thrilled and chilled.

According to the excellent show talk presented by Principal Coach and Accompanist Grant Wenaus prior to opening night of their new production, Sondheim sought to create a music thriller with his grisly Sweeney–something to terrify audiences. Wenaus detailed numerous instances where Sondheim used dissonance, repetition, and irony to create a heart-pounding show.

When I closed my eyes Friday night, the new production was absolutely terror-filled. The accomplished singers delivered many times over.

L to R: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna, Harry Greenleaf as Anthony Hope, Greer Grimsley in the title role, Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

L to R: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna, Harry Greenleaf as Anthony Hope, Greer Grimsley in the title role, Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The direction, however, did not.

Director Christopher Alden’s wryly amusing concept didn’t cut it for me. Where was the alarming atmosphere, the mounting panic, and the overwhelming dread Sondheim has so skillfully crafted into the score and the libretto? The audience should be clawing at the arms of their upholstered seats as the story freefalls into the deadliest and most chilling of downward spirals within the canon of contemporary musical theater.

As a bit of background, I am overall a fan of Alden’s work. The Così fan tutte he created for New York City Opera was a “sardonic stunner,” according to my 2012 review for Bachtrack. I also delighted in the Don Giovanni he directed in 2009 for the same company. Surely Don G. has been produced tens of thousands of times since its inception in 1787. Everyone knows the tale. So, a novel approach is welcome as long as it serves the story. I appreciated the wooden-chairs-against-the-bare-wall controlling concept in NYCO’s Don G:

Don Giovanni, directed by Christopher Alden, presented by New York City Opera, 2009.

Production photo from Don Giovanni, directed by Christopher Alden, presented by New York City Opera, 2009. | Photo by © Carol Rosegg

I was looking for–longing for–something fresh and evocative for Sweeney to well serve a contemporary musical not nearly as well known to operagoers as Don G. I expected Alden to bring his A-game. But he trotted out the wooden-chairs-against-the-bare-wall setting again, to the detriment of this production, which merited so much more than Alden’s cheeky minimalism.

Greer Grimsley in the title role Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Greer Grimsley in the title role Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

To its credit, the production starred the marvelous bass baritone Greer Grimsley as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He was everything Sweeney should be–a tormented, demented serial killer fueled by a bitter vengeance for having his modest world stolen from him. His operatic chops rose to the rafters of the opera house while raising the hairs on the arms of audience members. Greer’s interpretation, his immersion into character without sacrificing a whit of vocal integrity, was a tour de force, and one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen at Glimmerglass.

Greer Grimsley in the title role of The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Greer Grimsley in the title role of The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

If there is a more beloved role in contemporary musical theater than Mrs. Lovett, I’d be surprised. In spite of the fact that she turns Mr. T’s victims into meat pies, the audience wants to love her. Mezzo soprano (and real life wife of Grimsley) Luretta Bybee look and acted the role–some fetching costumes were conceived for her by Terese Wadden. Sadly, she was not vocally equipped to sing it. One either has to have an enormous chest range to surmount the break between the alto and soprano notes or a very hearty soprano. Bybee’s vocals got swallowed up between the two ranges and was barely heard over the orchestra numerous times, which was not the conductor’s fault.

Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The balance of the cast, to a person, was just outstanding. As Johanna Barker, Young Artist Emily Pogorelc’s rapturous soprano was perfectly suited to the sweetly virginal Johanna. I hung on her every note from the very first hearkening a caged nightengale in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

Emily Pogorelc as Johanna in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Emily Pogorelc as Johanna in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Another Young Artist Harry Greenleaf turned in a winsome and winning Anthony Hope. He possesses a rich ringing baritone. With his sandy-haired boyish good looks, he is every inch the ideal romantic lead.

Harry Greenleef as Anthony Hope in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Harry Greenleef as Anthony Hope in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

As the show’s unabashed baddies, bass Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and tenor Bille Bruley, a Young Artist, as Beadle Bamford, delivered star turns. I’ve never seen or heard a more believably tortured or chilling Turpin than in Volpe’s “Johanna (Mea Culpa),” which was effectively if sparsely staged.

Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Two other Young Artists deserve special mention. Tenor Christopher Bozeka as Senor Pirelli and Nicholas Nestorak as his attendant Tobias Ragg, that is until Pirelli’s throat is slit, both contributed immeasurably to the success of the show. Nestorak’s descent into madness as the meat grinder was chilling, despite the bare stage and lack of special effects.

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Nicholas Nestorak as Tobias Ragg in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Soprano and veteran performer Patricia Schuman earned an accolade of her own as the Beggar Woman. I last reviewed Schuman starring in Powder Her Face. From the Duchess of Argyll to a bag lady. What a versatile actress she is!

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Patricia Schuman as Beggar Woman in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

One expects to see clever bits in an Alden show, and there are those, to be sure. However, there is plenty of comic value in the book, sans Alden’s campy touches. So, attend the tale for the voices. And plan to enjoy a glass of wine or two at intermission in case this Sweeney happens not to be your cup of tea.

Sweeney Todd runs in repertory through Friday, August 26. Tickets available at the festival’s website.

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Baritones, Festival Opera, Live opera performance, music and humor, North American Opera, Reviews, young artists programs

water, light, darkness, good, evil–all combine in ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’

Sunrise by Monet

A Golden Operatoonity Post* 

Imagine a fairy tale with the backdrop of the most evocative Impressionist paintings you can conceive, pierced by the unrelenting darkness of a Poe story. If you can imagine such a tale set to Debussy’s music, you may begin to understand the appeal of the opera Pelléas et Mélisande.            

What elements do you think of when you consider your favorite Impressionist painters? Water, light, sunlight on water, veiled color, glimpses of pure color, unadorned beauty in nature, adorned beauty in the human form?            

Now, what comes to mind when you think of Poe’s writing?  Unrelenting, dark romanticism (“Annabel Lee“), sociopathy (“The Cask of Amontillado“), death (‘The City in the Sea”), descent into madness (“The Raven,” “The Telltale Heart“)?            

All of these combine, to breathtaking effect, in Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera in five acts by Claude Debussy, based on the earlier play by Maeterlinck, a dramatic fairy tale, which jumped to my attention last week, when a commenter mentioned Pelléas et Mélisande as, “The opera I cherish the most.”            

Painter Edmund Leighton's "Pelléas et Mélisande"

First, I’m fond of fairy tales on the simplest level. But I’m enamored of them when they are infused with something–it could be humor (The Princess Bride) or symbolism (Pelléas et Mélisande) that breathes freshness into them, inflating them into something you experience.  It was Maeterlink who elevated the fairy tale, and Debussy who honored Maeterlink‘s vision with a score that soars and plunges, that is, as you would expect, lush but also heart-piercingly bleak.            

Paul England cites it as one of fifty favorite operas in his book of the same name. Now that I’ve read about the opera and seen and heard portions of it–YouTube can be a godsend (no joke)–I can’t imagine contemporary composers like Stephen Sondheim not having been influenced by this opera.  Consider Sweeney Todd, which has musically and thematically some of the same elements–extraordinary passages of beauty and light (“Johanna”) juxtaposed against madness and death and even combined with madness and death (“Pretty Women”).           

As a writer, there are abundant lessons in studying this work. Both Maeterlink and Debussy broke conventions for their forms (fairy tale and opera) and that was what allowed them to thrill as opposed to merely satisfying.            

the chasm of unrequited love in “Pelléas et Mélisande”

To those staging the opera–which apparently is rendered in many settings including contemporary–and eagerly embrace the darkness of this, I would admonish you not to lose the light, the water. It is both light and dark that fills Debussy’s score. Let’s not forget Debussy’s fascination with water either, evident in his water series: En bateau (1889), Sirenes (1899), Reflets dans l’eau (1905), Voiles (1910), and La Cathedrale engloutie (1910). According to a quick search on my favorite site for finding live classical music  Bachtrack, The Met is producing Pelléas et Mélisande this December, and I’d be very curious to see how they stage it, if render honor both dark and light, water and stone, the insanity of love and the madness of revenge. With any luck, I’ll be able to attend. (Single tickets go on sale August 15).          

I’ve included two YouTube clips. The first is perhaps (for a romantic like me), the most soaring scene in the opera–the first real love scene between the young bride and her husband’s brother. The only thing I would change is that the setting, the surroundings are too dark. The interplay between light and dark should not be left to the music alone.           

YouTube Preview Image           

In this second clip, I love the play of light and the veil (which Maeterlink used when he premiered the play). This is an important scene because she loses her wedding ring in the well. I love the attention to light play created by the white scarf Pelléas holds and the crown of glory that is Mélisande’s hair. I think Melisande’s youth is important though in this clip Pelléas looks younger than she does.           

YouTube Preview Image

*first published July 31, 2010 

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Classic Opera, Classical Composers, masterpieces

music via art . . . smart!

Wolf Trap Opera Company‘s Filene Young Artists program is partnering with The Phillips Collection, an internationally recognized museum of modern and contemporary art, to present “Vocal Colors,” for the second consecutive year. “Vocal Colors” dovetails the worlds of visual and performing arts: Wolf Trap’s Filene Young Artists respond to artworks from The Phillips Collection with a wide variety of musical selections. There are two more performances of Vocal Arts on July 22–one at Wolf Trap and a final one at The Phillips Collection.             

The singers in the Filene Young Artists program have selected works by classical and modern composers, such as Handel, Stephen Sondheim and Joni Mitchell, inspired by masterpieces from the visual arts.             

What a wonderful idea! Boy, I wish I could attend. In lieu of being there in person, I thought it might be fun to create my own Vocal Arts spinoff. I have deep roots in musical theatre as a performer and a growing appreciation for the visual arts, so pairing music with art sounds like entertainment of the highest order!             

So, here goes. Feel free to play along in the comments section.             

The Dining Room in the Country by Pierre Bonnard

In response to several pieces by Pierre Bonnard who was known for his intense use of color, whose paintings reach deep into my soul each time I view them, I’d sing “Losing my Mind” by Stephen Sondheim. Perhaps it’s because his scenes loll you, even with the bright colors, because of the composition. I look at Bonnard’s settings and think, I wish I had someone to share this with. You know the lyrics to “Losing My Mind,” don’t you?             

The sun comes up – I think about you
The coffee cup – I think about you
I want you so, it’s like I’m losing my mind
The morning ends – I think about you
I talk to friends and think about you
And do they know it’s like
I’m losing my mind?

"Jeune Femme" by Pierre Bonnard

All afternoon doing every little chore
The thought of you stays bright
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor
Not going left – not going right 

I dim the lights and think about you
Spend sleepless nights to think about you
You said you loved me, or were
you just being kind?
Or am I losing

Losing my mind?

For several of Thomas Cole’s paintings in The Voyage of Life series which depicts a visual allegory of the four stages of life, I’d choose “Old Man” by Neil Young. (Neil Young is at his best when philosophical.)            

Old man look at my life,
I’m a lot like you were.
Old man look at my life,
I’m a lot like you were.     
 

"The Voyage of Life--Youth"

Old man look at my life,
Twenty four
and there’s so much more
Live alone in a paradise
That makes me think of two.           
 

 Love lost, such a cost,
Give me things
that don’t get lost.
Like a coin that won’t get tossed
Rolling home to you.     
 

"Voyage of Life--Manhood"

Old man take a look at my life
I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me
the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes
and you can tell that’s true.           
 

Lullabies, look in your eyes,
Run around the same old town.
Doesn’t mean that much to me
To mean that much to you.           
 

I’ve been first and last
Look at how the time goes past.
But I’m all alone at last.
Rolling home to you.           
 

“The Voyage of Life-Old Age”
Old man take a look at my life
I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me
the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes
and you can tell that’s true.   
Old man look at my life,
I’m a lot like you were.
Old man look at my life,
I’m a lot like you were.     
 

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