Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street did and still does well as a Broadway musical since it opened in 1979. But it does just as well and perhaps better on the operatic stage. The Glimmerglass Festival has chosen it as its “musical” for this year’s roster of productions. It proved a wise choice in a highly praiseworthy production.
The production has the benefit of superb singers and an accomplished orchestra but it relies on pared down sets.
Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett and Greer Grimsley in the title role of The Glimmerglass Festival's
production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In the opening scene, we see the cast in their “street clothes” and they take their costumes from a clothes rack to become the chorus of the opera. Set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland provides two moveable walls which serve as the backdrop for most of the performance with some variations for the asylum scene and the “end” of Mrs. Lovett.
Sweeney Todd is billed as a thriller and it reaches back to Jacobean revenge tragedies where murder, dismemberment and far more grotesque doings are the order of the day. Benjamin Barker was a barber on Fleet Street in London but he was transported to Australia by Judge Turpin on trumped up charges. His crime was having a pretty and virtuous wife that the judge desired. Now he returns to London disguised as Sweeny Todd to wreak vengeance.
He meets the inimitable Mrs. Lovett who runs a pie shop and she knows Barker’s story. They team up to avenge Sweeney and save his lovely daughter Johanna (Emily Pogorelc) who is the judge’s ward and on whom the judge has lecherous designs. As a barber, Sweeney has the perfect method of disposing of people’s souls with his sharp razor. Bodies are a bit more cumbersome but, you see, good meat is hard to come by and Mrs. Lovett needs a lot of it for those delicious pies.
Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley leads the cast as the grim and murderous Sweeney in search of his wife, his daughter and justice. He has a threatening manner and vocal power as he slashes his victims’ throats.
L to R: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna, Harry Greenleaf as Anthony Hope, Greer Grimsley in the title role, Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett makes a perfect partner for Sweeny. If he is after revenge, she is after money and more. Bybee performs with gusto the lurid role and sells delicious pies made with human flesh with sheer pleasure. She is just the type of woman your mother wants you to bring home.
Bass Peter Volpe plays the despicable Judge Turpin who wants to marry his young and beautiful ward Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter. Volpe sings and acts well and when Turpin gets a well-deserved close shave we are almost eager to order a meat pie from Mrs. Lovett the next day.
There are several performers from Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program that deserve credit for praiseworthy work. They are tenor Christopher Bozeka as the caricature of the operatic singer Adolfo Pirelli, tenor Nicholas Nestorak as the toady Tobias and tenor Bille Bruley as the ass-kissing Beadle Bamford. The opera seethes with disgusting characters but Glimmerglass is rich in having singers to do justice to the roles.
The lovely voiced soprano Emily Pogorelc deserves special praise as Johanna Barker who, with baritone Harry Greenleaf, another talented young artist, provided the love interest and decency in the moral cesspool of the opera.
Director Christopher Alden had a fine cast but limited stage props to work with. He does a fine job with a few movable panels.
The chorus’s movements are well choreographed and the production works well.
The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra under John DeMain performs superbly.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book adapted from the play by Christopher Bond) opened on July 9 and will be performed nine times until August 26, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org