Nathan Gunn, Sweeney Todd; Jake Gardner, Judge Turpin

Image: Lynn Lane

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Thru May 9
$38–386.25
Brown Theater
Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave
713-228-6737
houstongrandopera.org 

Revenge tragedies are thick with feeling. Betrayal, rage, satisfaction, torment, passion—pick any card, it’s there. Houston Grand Opera’s season closer, Stephen Sondheim’s great 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, looks beautiful and captures Sondheim's black humor, but misses the emotional heart of this diabolical tale. And a revenge tragedy without the thrill of vengeance is a tragedy of another kind. 

When the musical begins, the stage is already set for revenge. After 15 years exiled in Australia on trumped-up charges, the middle-aged Sweeney Todd returns to England hoping to find his wife Lucy and daughter Johanna. Instead, he finds the widowed baker Mrs. Lovett, who recognizes him as Benjamin Barker, the barber who once lived above her meat pie shop. She tells him that after he was banished a certain Judge Turpin raped and abandoned Lucy—who later poisoned herself—before adopting Johanna as his daughter. To add to his villainy, the mustache-twirling Turpin is now bent on making the teenage Johanna his wife, just as she’s fallen in love with a young sailor named Anthony. Sweeney wants revenge—and he gets it, aided by Mrs. Lovett, a sociopath with a heavy-duty meat grinder, grotesque culinary ambitions and a romantic infatuation with the barber. 

HGO has a history with Sweeney Todd—in 1984, it was the first opera company to stage the musical. (The current version, a co-production of HGO and San Francisco Opera, premiered in 2011 at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet.) Today it's performed by both opera and musical theater companies, and people still argue about its genre. The real question is what an opera company like HGO brings to the barber-ous production. After all, the legend of Sweeney Todd, a fictional character who originated in a 19th-century English penny dreadful, has been rendered in countless media, from stage to television to film. 

For starters, with HGO you can count on fabulous singing. In the title role, baritone Nathan Gunn delivered song after song with hearty, golden talent. Sailing up to celestially pure high notes, tenor Nicholas Phan, in the boyish role of Tobias Ragg, was a treat to hear. Yet it can be difficult for singers to find a middle register between opera and musical. Mezzo-soprano Megan Samarin looked the part of Johanna—pretty, blond, virginal—but sang in a distinctly grand, operatic style. On the other end of the spectrum, soprano Susan Bullock, singing the part of Mrs. Lovett, boasted a hefty vocal instrument that was plagued by a heavy-handed cockney accent and left an unfortunate twang in the air. 

A great opera singer is not always an inspired actor. While I could listen to Gunn sing aria after aria as the troubled Sweeney, he did little to inspire empathy for his character’s sad plight, or later, lather up any shock, remorse or shame as he sliced his way to the end, even with bright red blood gushing through his fingers. Worse yet, bass-baritone Jack Gardner, as the dishonorable Judge Turpin, could not act, and sang flatly—both out of tune and without animation. Partly to blame was the “electronic sound enhancement,” as the program calls it, created by sound designer Andrew Harper that cut in and out and threw the voices off balance. The orchestra, led by conductor James Lowe, also seemed to be working out some kinks, often just missing the singers’ entrances—a slip that surely will be remedied with a few more performances.

The standout performer was young Australian baritone Morgan Pearse, singing the role of Anthony, the sailor in love with Johanna. An HGO Studio artist, Pearse has already appeared twice with the company this season, as Papageno in The Magic Flute and Prince Yamadori in Madame Butterfly. Pearse has a knack for dramatic acting and a solid yet buttery voice that lent emotional substance to his somewhat one-dimensional character. 

Singing aside, the set, designed by Tanya McCallin, evoke the grime of 19th-century London with tasteful artistry. Gliding up and down behind a two-story set, the back-lit window shades set the emotional tone, glowing a fiendish red at times to mirror Sweeney’s murderous temper.

The comedic apogee of Sweeney Todd arrives at the end of Act Two, when Mrs. Lovett hits upon the demented idea of making meat pies out of Sweeney’s victims. A Sondheim classic of sharp wit and black humor, “A Little Priest” is probably the catchiest tune ever written about the subject of cannibalism. “We’ll serve anyone, meaning anyone, and to anyone at all!” Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett gleefully sing. But without the emotional substrate of anger—Sweeney’s anger at his misfortune, and Mrs. Lovett’s anger at her unreciprocated love for Sweeney—this song comes off as merely jokey. I couldn’t help but hear my old music teacher barking, “Again, with feeling!” 

Sweeney is such a wonderfully barbaric story. Is it too much to ask for more barbarism?

 

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