It was only five years after Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street first thrilled—or shocked—Broadway that the show came to be classed as an opera. The Houston Grand Opera mounted a production in 1984, and since then it has been produced by several dozen companies around the world. Categorization is deeper and also more obvious than semantics. Mamma Mia! would not become an opera if Kiri Te Kanawa and Placido Domingo were suddenly thrust into a production.
Sondheim’s music, a famously acquired taste, puts the kinds of demands on singers that many Broadway players cannot fulfill. Opera fans go to the theater because they crave hearing the trained human voice respond to difficult challenges with grace and beauty. And that’s what Syracuse Opera’s Sweeney Todd delivers from beginning to end.
In a production where what you hear is paramount, stage director Patricia Weinmann begins the action on a bare stage with eight players from the newly founded Symphoria behind. The Mulroy Civic Center’s Carrier Theater pit is covered with a rising platform, effectively used for Sweeney’s entrance. And later the platform is employed as an apron to bring the action closer to the audience. This means the music is louder than it would be from the pit, so that powerful singers without miking must make their way over the music, which they can do unless they’re placed on the balcony at stage left, allowing the orchestration to dominate them.
With Sondheim, a lyricist before he became a composer, the words always count. We begin with the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd: Attend the Tale of Sweeney” giving us the backstory of a barber wrongly accused, cruel Judge Turpin, transportation to Australia, a loved but lost wife and the survival of a beautiful daughter, Johanna. Although there are cuts elsewhere in the show, we are happy to have the exposition retained. Judging from the shock voiced by people sitting in the audience when the blood begins to flow (after all, it is a macabre musical about murderers who hide their victims by baking them as meat pies), and even more when the body count rises toward the end of the second act, many of us need reminders that Victorian gothic horror indeed means real horror.
The tone changes when baritone sailor Anthony Hope (resident artist Jonathan Christopher) arrives with the more promising “No Place Like London,” and soon we have evidence of crowds and urban settings. The 12-person chorus, augmented by four non-singing “supers,” all in period costumes designed by Patricia Hibbert, soon fill up the spaces and keep busy and mobile throughout the performances. Some chorus voices contribute solo passages not credited in the program. Black-and-white prints of cityscapes from production designer Barry Steele are projected on the wide blank wall at the back of the stage, behind the orchestra. Three two-decker trolleys are wheeled in on casters to serve as the set, evoking the barber and pie shops. On them are white muslin sheets for more detailed and intimate black-and-white projections.
Given that Sweeney Todd is not a neglected work, Syracuse Opera is presenting this production to let us hear some of the best talent available in these familiar roles. Making his local debut, bass-baritone Kyle Albertson as Todd delivers the kind of riches that brought 80 percent of the sold-out house out during the Feb. 8 horrendous storm when more timorous companies went dark. His rich dark voice can do everything, especially “My Friends,” early in the first act, and also “Pretty Women” in the second. Albertson’s persona is as expressive as his voice, and he easily commands attention visually, even when he’s not singing. His sly expressions magnify the macabre duet on cannibalism, “A Little Priest,” with mezzo Jennifer Roderer as Mrs. Lovett.
Roderer, last seen here as a witch in Syracuse Opera’s Hansel and Gretel, also brings robust vocals and is not to be upstaged. With her bright red wig (from Elsen Associates) evoking the poster for the original production, and her insinuating grin, we know that she may be Sweeney’s partner (she thinks of the way to dispose of the bodies), but she’s not the love interest because the barber yearns for his lost wife Lucy. She soars in the solos “By the Sea” and “Wait” but suffers competition with the orchestra in “Poor Thing.”
A second out-of-town bass baritone making a smashing local debut here is Jamie Offenbach as the depraved Judge Turpin, who brought destruction to the barber’s household and now plans deeper malevolence for the innocent blonde Johanna (Angela Theis). In one of Sondheim’s cleverest moves, the words from Sweeney’s “Pretty Women” also issue forth from Judge Turpin, where they engender quite a different response. With his lithe and lanky body, Offenbach brings all the expressiveness of a mime when he’s not singing.
Under Patricia Weinmann’s direction, the characterization of rival barber Pirelli (tenor Jonathan Howell) is portrayed differently from other productions. Pirelli, a fake Italian as it is revealed, is still a comic character as Howell is dressed in a clown-sized fat suit. The joke is musical, not personal, as portrayed here. Howell, a local favorite, is excellent in the difficult high notes and anything but a buffoon. As it appears here, the object of Sondheim’s thrust is not the character but rather that supreme composer of comic operas, Gioachino Rossini.
Although the program says that tenor Michael Kuhn is making a local professional debut as Tobias Ragg, his is already a familiar voice. Ragg is Pirelli’s stooge, who becomes closer to Sweeney and Lovett after the murder. Kuhn is a Syracuse University graduate and former member of the chorus who acquired national credits before returning. His early patter song enjoys a kind of Gilbert & Sullivan brilliance, but his “Not While I’m Around” overflows with sweetness in the midst of a show characterized by darkness and sharp edges.
Three top-notch voices appear in supporting roles, starting with tenor Cristopher Frisco (a resident artist) as the morally shifty Beadle. Mezzo Melisse Weber, a company regular, gives us the ubiquitous Beggar Woman, whose real identity is not revealed until the end. Weber, a performer of striking presence, makes several entrances through the audience. Young bass-baritone John Rozzoni makes a striking local debut as Jonas Fogg, the asylum-keeper obsessed with yellow hair.
Brian Demaris’ excellent conducting of the ensemble superbly negotiates Sondheim’s complex score. It was a group decision, not his alone, that put musicians ahead of singers from time to time.
Syracuse Opera’s Sweeney Todd is the reverse of Tim Burton’s 2007 movie version, where all energy is directed toward the eye. Voice for voice, your ear would prefer the voices heard in Syracuse.
This production runs through Sunday, Feb. 17. See Times Table for information.