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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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