Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sweeney (T)odd

The more I hear and see Sweeney Todd, the less I like it. This is not how I envisaged the course of my love affair with Stephen Sondheim's operatic masterpiece. After flirtations with clips on YouTube and passion with a cast recording, last night at the Royal Festival Hall we split up - or should I say, I dumped Sweeney.

The problem is not Sondheim's, that is to say, not the score or the lyrics, which are as complex, dramatic, witty and fresh as ever. The drama is where it falls down, with redundant episodes and a feeble climax lacking logic or resolution.

The plot sees Sweeney return from penal exile in Australia, looking for revenge on Judge Turpin, who sent him down to get hold of his wife, Lucy, and his baby daughter, Johanna. Young sailor Anthony rescued Sweeney, and Mrs Lovett rents out the room above her pie shop to him so he can resume his career as a barber. Sweeney hungers for revenge, practising his throat-slicing skills on his customers, who get turned into pies by the pragmatic Mrs Lovett, while Anthony tries to rescue the captive Johanna.

Bryn Terfel was an outstanding Sweeney, with his powerful, clear voice and natural charisma dominating the entire production. His shifts between rage and grief in 'Epiphany' ('They all/ Deserve/ To die') were the ravings of a broken man, instantaneously rendered by Terfel, who filled the hall with his roars and cries. Maria Friedman as Mrs Lovett was a little too Pat Butcherish for my taste and brought out the humour too much, sitting uneasily with the macabre. I realise that some people say the skill of the show is its variety of tones, but these in fact pull it too far in too many directions. The change from terror to laughter before 'A Little Priest' is ruinously absurd.

I wish I could compliment Ms Friedman on her singing but the RFH's sound crew made this impossible: the sound amplification was such that the clever lyrics were swallowed up in the front row. All that reached the nose-bleed seats were pretty sounds but pretty indistinct words. This lack of clarity badly damaged some of the most complex moments of the score. The two quartets, which demand four people singing four different lines, had their harmonies mangled and squashed. This was not such a problem with Daniel Boys (Anthony), whose tremulous tone - dull, aptly for his character - was best suppressed, but Emma Williams was delightful.

The faults of Sweeney Todd stretch beyond these specific ones, to those inherent in the book. Instead of winding the strands of Sweeney-Mrs Lovett and Johanna-Anthony together with economy and a satisfying resolution, Hugh Wheeler's book is bloated, incomplete and illogical. Why is Tobias able to escape from a locked room when before he couldn't? What happens to Johanna and Anthony? Why is the Pirelli episode there (apart from allowing a semi-witty song)?

This carelessness spills into characterisation. Mrs Lovett is greedy and ruthless yet tender and sympathetic, without regard for consistency: is a woman who puts people into pies really going to be worried about who she's filling her food with? If some characters are unrealistically complex, some are incredibly one dimensional. Anthony and Johanna, who are assigned some of the best songs in the show, are stereotypes fresh out of Victorian melodrama, whereas Sweeney himself is well-developed.

Certainly several of these problems could have been resolved with a little more rehearsal time, or at least a little more thought given to the staging, which made good use of the different levels of the RFH's platform but failed to explain how Pirelli's enormous corpse could lie unnoticed on Sweeney's floor. Having said that, the disposal of the victims got a big laugh, as indeed anything involving a tea-trolley should. Perhaps the sorest sign of a quick production was the desk chair meant to represent Sweeney's monstrous barber's chair, which raised unwanted laughs.

There is nothing wrong with the score: Sondheim comes out blameless. The alternately devoted/chilling 'Not While I'm Around', sung to and then by the murderous Mrs Lovett, is beautiful in its simple emotions (at least from Tobias' end), even as it reinforces the utter weirdness of all the relationships in the show.

'Green Finch and Linnet Bird' was trilled quite delightfully by Johanna. I always find the lines 'Larks never will [sing], you see,/ When they are captive,/ Teach me to be more adaptive' touching for its self-aware juxtaposition of odd sentiments. (Or perhaps I just like the word 'adaptive'.) And 'Johanna' always stirs, especially with its motif of the three ascending notes then gathered into a chord.

If anything was wrong with the music, it was the London Philharmonic Orchestra's fault (apart from Friedman forgetting the words to 'By the Sea' and tripping up over the complex rhyme scheme). At the end of the show, when there are bodies over the whole stage and all the singers are thundering out the Dies Irae-esque 'Ballad of Sweeney Todd', that the LPO should quieten down is inexplicable.

I would gladly hear this production's songs again - hopefully with greater clarity - but to have to allege that it works as a spectacle and a play is beyond me.

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