Review: Broadway opera Sweeney Todd at its macabre best

By William Dart

An energetic troupe of 21 singers bring the Victorian tale of a murderous barber to life. Photo / David Rowland
An energetic troupe of 21 singers bring the Victorian tale of a murderous barber to life. Photo / David Rowland

Sweeney Todd, once described by its composer, Stephen Sondheim, as a movie for the stage, had a dream venue in The Civic.

Stuart Maunder's production for New Zealand Opera never missed a cue, balancing gusty grand guignol with dark poetry in which human souls emerged from expressionist vaudeville.

An energetic troupe of 21 singers zestfully explored Roger Kirk's ingenious Victorian cityscape, with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra providing the snappiest of pit bands, conducted by Benjamin Northey.

This was Broadway opera at its best. Microphones with classical vocal expertise made for narrative thrust and audible words without surtitles; Sondheim's complex and ironical ensemble pieces crackled with cleverness.

Even a lacklustre Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Sweeney did not seriously detract from an evening of thrills and chills.

A slew of reviews from across the Tasman had warned of the baritone's thespian limitations, best described as acting by numbers. Visually, Rhodes was a magnificent hulk, a brooding Frankenstein of a man, but his singing lacked the lustre and finesse to realise subtler emotions. Antoinette Halloran moved us as Mimi and Cio-Cio San a few years back, and the Australian soprano was a superb Mrs Lovett; a lowlife Lady Macbeth with an endless repertoire of gestures and vocal touches at her call, whether slapping at flies in the pie shop or pursuing seaside dreams in the parlour.

Other singers were exemplary, from James Benjamin Rodgers and Amelia Berry as the sweet-voiced young lovers to Phillip Rhodes' sonorous Turpin, too young and attractive, alas, to catch fully this sleazeball villain. Helen Medlyn's Beggar Woman offered a textbook display of seasoned stagecraft, scene by scene.

There were real theatrical frissons in Robert Tucker's flamboyant Pirelli, revelling in broad Italiano and Oirish accents, while Andrew Glover's eminently creepy Beadle offered some deliriously delightful ditties at the harmonium.

Best of all, the young Joel Granger, making his local debut as Tobias after some overseas successes, suggests that our country's operatic future is in good voice.

What: Sweeney Todd

Where: The Civic

Helen Medlyn in Sweeney Todd. Photo / David Rowland
Helen Medlyn in Sweeney Todd. Photo / David Rowland

- NZ Herald

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