New York City Opera's Sweeney Todd reviews
From The Financial Times : ‘. . . American opera houses are too big for the intimacies of this Grand Guignol escapade. Magnification impels distortion. And so it was Tuesday at the opening of the New York City Opera season.
. there was little room here for subtlety, with the text projected in redundant supertitles and the sound degraded by over- amplification. Adding dramatic insult to musical injury, the edge of menace was blunted at every diabolical turn. . . it all emerged bland and dutiful.
. . . Everyone worked very hard. It wasn't enough.’
From Variety: ’It may be time to end the debate about the propriety of letting that most improper of musical heroes, Sweeney Todd, slash his way across opera house stages. He and his impish consort, Mrs. Lovett of the unsavory meat pies, recently stormed the Royal Opera House in London, that bastion of respectability. A few murmurs of dismay were heard, but the audiences ate it up.
The more uncomfortable truth is that Stephen Sondheim's Grand Guignol musical is not likely to return to Broadway soon, at least commercially -- it's too big, too musically demanding and murderously difficult to stage, which is to say expensive. Fortunately, American opera houses have been giving it a cozy home for years now. And none have been cozier than the New York City Opera, which is presenting it for the third time, in the production created in 1984 by the original Broadway director, Harold Prince.
As is often the case when "Sweeney" treads the opera boards, the cast is a mixture of theatrical performers and opera singers -- and the combination proves smooth and tasty here. The real news is the unexpected triumph of diminutive British musical theater diva Elaine Paige, who gives a rollicking, thoroughly delightful performance as Mrs. L. . . Paige's performance was accomplished and quite lovable. The actress's tiny stature adds comic flavoring to the evening: Bustling around the stage, with Mrs. L's trademark pinwheels of hair sprouting from her head like an extra pair of ears, Paige resembled a little toy poodle scampering behind her master, the hulking Sweeney (Mark Delavan). Her comic acting is lively without stooping to caricature, and she brings a touch of warmth to the role, too.
. . . Alongside Paige's energetic Mrs. Lovett, rising opera star Delavan was oddly subdued in the title role -- he all but evaporated during the rousing act-one closer, "A Little Priest." Delavan's rich, dark baritone did full justice to the music of this most operatic of Sondheim roles, and the man is a naturally imposing presence: Stepping out of the boat that brings him back to London to wreak vengeance on the men who rigged his banishment and seduced his wife, Delavan's Sweeney suggested Frankenstein's monster more than anything else.
. . . George Manahan conducted Sondheim's richly varied score with affectionate attentiveness, as the City Opera orchestra smoothly navigated its contrasts in texture and tone. The amplification was generally unobtrusive and skillful despite some ragged moments in the choral numbers. "Sweeney Todd" more comfortably fills an opera house than any of Sondheim's other works; it's far better suited to the State Theater than "A Little Night Music," which City Opera presented in a woozy staging last year.
The Prince production, now two decades old, has held up reasonably well. It's a scaled-down riff on his Broadway original, with similar sets by Eugene Lee and crepuscular lighting by Ken Billington. But it could use a fresh idea or two. The act-one climax, in which the partners in crime hold aloft their respective implements of revenge on a world of injustice, has become a cliché. Raising high the razor and the rolling pin, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett have begun to seem more dutiful than demented.’
From the New York Times: ‘Stephen Sondheim's devilishly clever music is handsomely served. The unexpected shortening and elongating of phrases, the off-kilter accents and the oozing legato phrases that set off these elements all had character and assurance. Mr. Sondheim's music, on the other hand, is a means not an end, and that end was hard to come by in the cavernous opera-house environment of the New York State Theater.
Maybe in the tiny Rococo theaters of small Tuscan towns and French palaces, words had the primacy that Mr. Sondheim's sensibility still insists on. But opera singing, to state the obvious, has gotten bigger: swallow words if you must, but make a beautiful sound. Unfortunately the words of "Sweeney Todd" are more devilishly clever than even the music, and on Tuesday they didn't stand a chance.
. . . City Opera rigs up bridges between audience and stage as best it can. There are the same kind of supertitle projections used for Donizetti, even though "Sweeney" is in English. They are unfortunately the principal connection to the texts. Given the absurdity of so many bel canto librettos, the distraction is bearable; in Sondheim it is fatal.
Voices were amplified (as indeed they are in even the smaller Broadway theaters). But at the State Theater indistinctness was simply made louder. There were small successes in communication, mainly from the theater end of this mixed-media cast. Ms. Paige is an old hand at musical theater and values precision. . . Mr. Delavan's sure, booming voice, which seemed for some reason more amplified than that of his colleagues, made a case for Sweeney's operatic side. In appearance and gesture — chalk-gray complexion and hulklike gait — he pours on the menace in heavy shovelsfull. One feels a restraining hand from the stage director, Arthur Masella, on Mr. Delavan's natural tendencies, but opera singers can't help being "operatic."
By all means go to "Sweeney Todd," but don't expect to come away with all of it.’
From the New York Post: ‘The barber is back - and while City Opera's latest revival isn't as razor-sharp as it could be, it's bound to thrill the faithful.
. . . Britain's Elaine Paige wowed 'em at Tuesday night's opening as Mrs. Lovett, who serves up Sweeney's victims en croute. But her breezy Cockney seemed at odds with Mark Delavan's stiff, all-American Sweeney, however sumptuously sung.
When all was said and sung, the loudest applause was for Sondheim; when he joined the cast on stage, it was clear the audience could just eat him up.’
From Newsday : ‘. . . As Sweeney Todd, Mark Delavan, the company's reigning baritone, is just about the best argument one could make for letting opera singers take on musicals. His commitment to the role is ferocious, and his robust if somewhat dry voice gives as much lyric potency to Todd as one could wish. Yet it can't match the original of Len Cariou, a real singing actor who could suggest twice as much character with half the vocal equipment. Delavan's Knute Rockne shoulders and Lon Chaney looks make for a frightening entrance, but his line readings are flat and he resorts to shouting to make a point.
London star Elaine Paige abounds in the natural musical- comedy gifts that Delavan lacks, even if her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett substitutes a buoyant ebullience for the complexity of Angela Lansbury's original creation. But her short stature makes a strange match for Delavan's towering size.’
From Associated Press: ‘Twenty-five years after it first opened in New York, Sweeney Todd remains an astonishing, ambitious piece of musical theater.
. . . The New York City Opera revival, which opened Tuesday, expertly mixes performers from the worlds of opera and musical theater.
The result is an enormously satisfying, well-sung production, goulish and gleeful in equal measure thanks to some canny casting of the two leads.
Visually, (Paige and Delavan) are a murderous Mutt and Jeff. As Todd, Delavan is a large, hulking presence with demonic features and the widest shoulders this side of a Chicago Bears linebacker.
His voice is strong and secure, and if his accent is more Main Street than Fleet Street, his delivery of Sondheim's intricate lyrics is nearly crystal clear, unlike other equally operatic members of the cast.
. . . Paige is a killer pixie, petite but possessing a clarion musical-theater voice and a powerhouse comic sensibility.
Her Mrs. Lovett, Todd's giddy accomplice in dispatching those in need of a close shave, is funny and affecting.’
From the New Jersey Star-Ledger : ‘. . . Stephen Sondheim's gory and gorgeous musical thriller, which opened Tuesday, remains a diabolical treat -- more or less -- although the New York State Theater is too cavernous a house to properly showcase the work's relatively intimate horror story.
. . . The physically imposing Delavan brings a lustrous dark voice and a brooding presence to the role. It's unfortunate that Delavan's Kabuki-white makeup and football field-size shoulders make his Sweeney look like Herman Munster -- especially when he bellows his lines -- although the singer's rather ponderous authority is impressive.
Starting off tentatively, Paige initially threatens to live up to Mrs. Lovett's "limited wind," but she eventually relaxes into the character, cozily playing the meat pie entrepreneur with a gleaming smile, a jigging foot and a wicked giggle. The stars mesh at their best during "A Little Priest," that ominous waltz that closes the first act when Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett envision their happy future serving human flesh to unsuspecting diners. They nail every gag in Sondheim's sardonic, pun-filled lyrics to maximum comic effect -- perhaps aided a little by the supertitles.. . . Hugh Wheeler's text has been trimmed slightly along with Sondheim's score. The tooth-pulling section in the contest between Sweeney and a rival barber has been eliminated, and so, alas, is the amusing "Tower of Bray" trio from the "Parlor Songs" sequence. Interestingly, a new lyric -- nothing fancy -- set to the "Poor Thing" tune has been added for the Beggar Woman's final appearance in the barbershop.
. . . Great though it is to experience "Sweeney Todd" again in all of its blood-and-thunder glory, the musical is still best suited to a Broadway-scale house and Broadway-caliber artists. There's a palpable sense of strain to NYCO's revival that prevents the show from being as razor-sharp as it was originally.’