Sweeney Todd: Der teuflische Barbier von Freak Street

Kurt Gänzl
Kurt of Gerolstein Blog
27 April, 2014

I’m just back – exhausted – from Magdeburg. Yes, I didn’t know where it was either. But I do now, and I’ve had a nice time. Enjoyable red-train trip, excellent comfy Ratswaage hotel, delicious dinner at the Lago di Garda … but I didn’t go there for those things. I went because I’d been invited to the Opernhaus’s production of Sweeney Todd.

Yes. Well, Sweeney and I go back a long way. To the first week of its official life on Broadway, actually. And I’ve seen it in all shapes and sizes since. With very varying degrees of enjoyment.

The original, I didn’t find attractive. The piece was smothered in ‘meaningful production’ (oh that awful organ!) and – well, I wasn’t quite sure whether we were supposed to be taking this for real, or whether it was a good old Tod-Slaughteresque burlesque. Mrs Lovett and the juves seemed to be playing the second, and Todd and the chorus the first. No, I said to my boss, don’t buy this one. London knows its String of Pearls, we’ve had Sweeney Todd musicals before, and this fancy lot don’t seem to know what they’re trying to do.

But I was to, sort of, eventually, change my mind. Some time later, after the egregious flop of the ‘big’ show at Drury Lane, I went to the little Half Moon theatre and saw a cut down (if heavily left-slanted) version with Leon Greene as a hugely charismatic and gloriously vocal Sweeney. Small was good. Yes! Cut, pruned … cast well … I’ve no remembrance of who played the other roles. This version was all about Benjamin Barker.

I next saw an excellent production at Northampton Opera House with Michael Heath and Susan Jane Tanner … yes, this time, like the first, I remembered Mrs Lovett  ..

Since, I’ve not seen one production to equal those two. But I remember my feeling on the original: I came out liking Mrs Lovett, Toby, the ensemble and chorus music and …

The opera house in Magdeburg, Germany. (Photo: Kurt Gänzl)

The opera house in Magdeburg, Germany. (Photo: Kurt Gänzl)

But on to Magdeburg. Lovely little Opernhaus (with an inattentive barman!), grand seats, fine orchestra, and an opera company. Hmm. I was a little worried. Opera? Well, yes, the music needs singing. But much of the piece is burlesque. We don’t want a po-faced opera performance. So what did we get …?

I don’t quite know where to start. So, why not start with the good and the fine things.

The scenic concept was grand. I loved Anthony and Sweeney coming ashore on a real ship. There were many pictures of past productions in it, which all worked adequately, but alas there was one horrendous failure, to which I will come later.

The highlights of the night, for me, were two performances. The same as on my original experience of the show: Mrs Lovett and Toby.

I have seen Australian Gayle MacFarlane before. In Sydney, when (as casting director of the London show) I saw her play the best ever Chairy Barnum (opposite the worst ever Barnum) in the musical of that name. Never did I think to find her in Magdeburg 30 years later!

Well, it was a ‘bonzer’ revisitation. She is even more dazzling as Mrs Lovett than as Mrs Barnum.  And, in this production, that is a hard job. It’s implacably operatic. Under a direction which, as so often with this piece, doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether to be melodrama, burlesque, comedy or a mixture of all, she encompasses the whole field. She is pretty and coquettish enough to make her flirtation with Todd seem real rather than grotesque, her duets with him were vocally outstanding, and oh! the highlight of the show: her ‘No one’s going to harm you’ with Toby. That wasn’t any kind of burlesque. But it slayed the house. This was a performance of choice. I think, perhaps, sorry Angela and Sue Jane, the best Mrs Lovett of my career.

Then Toby. Michael Ernst.  A grateful role, but one full of traps. He started a bit coarsely and finished ott (director’s and dramaurg’s fault), but his ‘No one’s going to harm you’ was quite, quite superb. Although I’m not sure why he was still wearing his Act One wig. But, anyway, that was my moment of the night.

A scene from "Sweeny Todd" in Magdeburg.

A scene from “Sweeny Todd” in Magdeburg.

Then, of course, Sweeney. Well, Cariou was masculine, and not vocally impressive, but he did dominate the show with his presence. Hearn was and did more so in both ways. Greene utterly outdid both, in triplicate. Powerful, looming, ‘this man is dangerous’. And with a huge ex-Englisb Opera voice.

Tonight we had Kevin Tarte. Not of the operatic company but, like Ms Macfarlane and Mr Ernst, a guest. Mr Tarte has a really splendid baritone voice which he uses to great effect, he acts with enthusiasm and intelligence  … OK, so, what am I holding back on?

How one department can ruin a performance and a show.

Mr Tarte was dressed and wigged … no, I forbid myself the obvious. He looked like Veronica Lake’s 25-year-old daughter, in his straggly ash-blond wig, and his green dressing gown – with, Lord forbid, a wholly un-Victorian train – which together made him into the campest, most un-masculine, powerless-seeming Sweeney ever seen. This Sweeney was clearly more than just pals with Anthony. And he certainly didn’t loom for an instant. Well, you can’t when you look so ridiculous. Dangerous? Haha! The Demon Barber? More like a Wizard of Oz, or an inhabitant of Rivendell. Horror!

Tarte’s fine singing and acting could not erase his hilarious visual image … and then, after displaying himself in King’s Fool tatters, in act two, he appeared looking like the easter bunny, in candy-stripes, or the frog footman from Alice in Wonderland … oh! how to kill a performance and a show! Crucify the costumier!

Mr Tarte, let me see and hear you henceforth as Onegin or Figaro … but, please, not ever again, Miss Sweeney Todd from Melbourne! What a stupid, damned shame.

The rest of the performers, from the resident company, I pass by with a nod. All (with one exception) had fine opera voices, finely used. Good luck to them in Der Rosenkavalier. Barely a one – I except Beadle Bamford (Manfred Wulfert) – knows much about acting. Joanna and Anthony (aberrantly cast with a baritonic Siegfried Jersualem of 40) seemed to think they were singing Lakme:not a spark of personality or humour, the Lucy – with a glorious mezzo – did frizzy wig acting, and the judge – handicapped by the restoration (why?) of that boring flagellation aria, which helps make the show far too long, looked altogether younger than Anthony!

But that’s opera house casting. Cast for the voice, and expect the rest to follow. Oh, we’ll be OK.

I’m grumbling a lot. But I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t feel the production could have been so easily so much better. The raw materials were there … but, well, if you’re NOT doing burlesque … what are we doing with beach-ball babes, with that ghastly parade of chorus pie-fodder, a pinch of the Hunyak episode from Chicago, and with above all the candy-striped pie factory (in Fleet Street?) with Lucy falling embarrassingly around everywhere … and if you ARE …?

One more and a weighty complaint, Mr Director. The most important of all. Where was the oven? The furnace? The witch’s oven? The pits of hell? As in Don Giovanni, the most important image in the whole show? CUT?! Might as well cut Tosca’s leap or Isolde’s death. Germany has a bad record for mutilating classic shows, but this was too much. We ended up with a Hamlet pile of corpses instead of a Tod-Slaughter cataclysm …

Well, one thing that this production has left me pretty sure of, is that Sweeney Todd is absolutely unsuited to an opera house. The lovely choral and ensemble sounds (Sweeney’s letter was a joy!) just don’t make up for the losses in style and coherence and drama. Sigh. Sweeney Todd seems somehow to resist a coherent production.

But if we could take Leon Greene, Ms MacFarlane plus the best of the rest from the last 30 years, plus a trimmed up script and score, and put then into a pie together … we might indeed have ‘the best pie in London’.