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April 7, 2015updated 11 Jan 2016 1:42pm

Review: Sondheim, Sweeney Todd, English National Opera

By Spear's

This masterpiece of macabre musical theatre by Stephen Sondheim has had a deconstructive makeover by Lonny Price at the ENO. This production, first seen at the Lincoln Center in New York, starts off in concert form but music stands are quickly thrown aside, a piano is turned upside down and costumes are dismantled.

Sweeney Todd is an operatic musical, bridging the gap between the two genres, and it was performed with huge success at the Royal Opera House in 2003, with Thomas Allen in the title role.

Bryn Terfel shines as Todd, the barber transported to Australia for a crime he didn’t commit, who returns to take revenge on the crooked judge who sent him away; his dark, rich baritone voice is a luxury.

Emma Thompson pulls off the tricky role of pie-maker Mrs Lovett, who finds smart uses for Sweeney’s corpses, with some gutsy singing and hilariously timed asides. She manages to negotiate pretty difficult vocal passages, having obviously worked quite hard on placement of her voice between head and chest. It was clever and good singing.

The cannibalistic waltz duet ‘A Little Priest’ between Thompson and Terfel was the highlight of the evening; Sondheim’s lyrics about all the professions of the people in the pies are so witty and twisted and the music entrancing. What’s more, Sweeney Todd remains timeless: there’s no hint of it being written in 1979, unlike, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera (1986), which desperately needs an overhaul to rid it of its ghastly drums and synths.

What didn’t sit well with me was the casting, leaning towards Broadway belting nasal voices which don’t work alongside Terfel. The ensemble were too ‘West End’, so much so that the requiem-style climax ‘Swing your razor wide’ lost its impact and drama. It’s all squeals and shouting. The ENO has a fantastic chorus, so mixing a few of them in would have been a sensible move to give it the musical gravitas it deserves.

Katie Hall is a convincing orphan-prisoner Johanna, but the musically pinched upper register and the straight tone into vibrato is unappealing, though she was well matched by Matthew Seadon-Young as her nerdy yet ardent lover, Anthony.

Philip Quast as the odious Judge Turpin made a superb vocal impact and his Pretty Women duet with Terfel was a vocal treat. Quast’s side-kick Alex Gaumond also delivered as the brilliantly sly, creepy Beadle.

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This is a fun show: there are plenty of great tricks with the orchestra, wonderfully conducted by David Charles Abell, although it was at times over-amplified.

If the ENO wants to continue doing musicals they should think about casting more of a mix of voices, both classical and musical theatre. They should not be like every other West End production and should set themselves apart in a league of their own, like the company they stand for.

Sweeney Todd runs at the English National Opera until 12 April


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