“The history of the world,” Sweeney Todd instructs his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, “is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” In Christopher Alden’s new Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical/opera, the action is updated from its quaint Dickensian milieu to a stark near-present, perhaps Britain of the 1950s, whose people were treated to Harold Macmillan’s campaign slogan that they had “never had it so good.” Drab colors, a string of diminished Union Jacks, and set backdrops designed to fracture into broken segments behind the action all imparted a dry sense of desperation to a work that is, in essence, a black comedy with a moralistic bent exploring the consequences of abused power and the futility of revenge. As a study of the human condition in our current climate, it could only have been enhanced by a missing tranche of e-mails and a vindictive real-estate tycoon oddly drawn to Russia (and, just maybe, a vote to leave the European Union).
Glimmerglass has been pursuing an artistic plan to present American musicals alongside traditional operatic offerings. The idea is to enhance the potency of the musicals by presenting them with operatically trained voices and full orchestras, all without amplification. Is Sweeney Todd a musical or an opera, then? Sondheim's own position indulges in ambiguity. In the program notes he rather self-servingly maintains that the answer depends on what the audience expects. Only five years after its 1979 world premiere, Houston saw a full-on operatic production, one of the first major adaptations of an American musical for the grander art form. In recent years, New York has seen both a musical revival starring Patti LuPone and an operatic version staged as a concert performance with star bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the title role. Subjectively, Sweeney Todd can thus represent either art form, a hybrid of the two, a parody of the conventions of both, or something altogether new. Here it looked much more like opera than anything else, though purists may hold their noses (as they undoubtedly will next year when Glimmerglass takes on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!).
Does the story make an operatic point? Of course. Subtitled The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, it tells the doleful tale of the barber Benjamin Barker, who was banished to a penal colony (Australia?) on trumped-up charges by Judge Turpin, a hanging magistrate who fancied Barker’s wife and had no other means of stealing her away. Fifteen years later Barker returns under an assumed name, Sweeney Todd, to seek revenge on those who wronged him, rescue his wife, and recover his daughter by her. In his quest he is helped by the local pie saleswoman Mrs. Lovett, whose product is regarded as the worst of its kind in London. Inter alia she tells him, falsely, that his wife has died and that the judge has raised his long lost daughter as his ward. Todd’s devises a plan to reestablish himself as a barber capable of luring the evil judge under his murderous blade, along with a small number of other unfortunate customers. But in a stroke of inspiration, he realizes that both his good fortune and Mrs. Lovett’s business will be helped if they abandon all moral pretense in favor of a scheme to murder the barber’s lonelier customers (those who will not be missed) and serve them up in Mrs. Lovett’s suddenly much tastier meat pies. Naturally, the scheme unravels in the second act, as Sweeney Todd’s revenge plot falters with results worthy of Greek tragedy.
The dreariness of Alden’s production made the characters and their motivations understandable if not exactly exciting. Sweeney Todd is no flashy villain but an abused proletarian whose basest instincts fly out at the earliest opportunity. His pathos was well served by the stentorian Greer Grimsley, a dramatic baritone whose singing in the part may be among the finest in any role in which I have heard him. Luretta Bybee’s music hall voice, though less operatic, recalled Angela Lansbury’s flair in the part. Peter Volpe sang an authoritative Judge Turpin. Glimmerglass young artists Harry Greenleaf and Emily Pogorelc showed much promise as the young lovers, as did their colleague Christopher Bozeka’s Pirelli. John DeMain conducted Sweeney Todd’s original operatic adaptation in 1984 and shows no sign of having diminished in his studied devotion to the score.