Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Sondheim - Sweeney Todd (Belfast, 2019)

Stephen Sondheim - Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Northern Ireland Opera & Lyric Theatre, 2019

Walter Sutcliffe, Sinead Hayes, Steven Page, Julie Mullins, John Porter, Anthony Hope, Jessica Hackett, Jack Wolfe, Mark O'Regan, Richard Croxford, Elaine Hearty, Matthew Cavan, Dawn Burns, Christopher Cull, Enda Kilroy, Jolene O'Hara, Tommy Wallace

The Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 3rd February 2019

I'm facing a bit of a dilemma here, since Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd doesn't really belong in an opera blog, or at least not in my personal definition of an opera blog (which is a blogger's prerogative of course), but this is a co-production of Northern Ireland Opera with the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and I've been closely following pretty much every NI Opera production since its inauguration in 2011. Which makes the dilemma two-fold; it's not just a question of what should be covered in this blog, but also how to give credit where credit is due. If I were to review this for another outlet this would undoubtedly be a more positive review of a very competent, well-performed and entertaining music theatre production. As an NI Opera production however, this is fairly vapid material that falls far below what we have come to expect.

I've no doubt that there are practical and financial considerations that have to be taken into account, and I'm sure I couldn't underestimate to the kind of compromises have to be made and the practical decisions that have to be faced by any arts funded company. I can imagine however that serious consideration needs to be made between the viability of putting on what might appear to be an elitist obscure opera for a couple of nights to a half-filled Grand Opera House and running a three-week sold out popular show at the Lyric Theatre that will reach out to a younger if not necessarily any more socially diverse audience. I realise that these decisions have to be made, but it doesn't mean I have to like them.

Compromises have to be made in Belfast as much as with the English National Opera at the Coliseum in London; that's the economic reality in a time of reduced funding for the arts. Walter Sutcliffe's first season as director of NI Opera balanced that well however with a reduced season of works that can have popular appeal to bring in new audiences but still have artistic merit. On the one hand we had a fine production of Così Fan Tutte (not seen as often in Belfast as other Mozart operas) and a Rigoletto of impressive singing, but also a successful co-production between NI Opera and the Lyric Theatre of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera. It's rather dispiriting however this has been downgraded this year to a line-up that consists only of a popular Sondheim musical, three performances with high ticket prices for an operetta (Die Fledermaus) and a formal dress gala concert for local big-wigs. Shockingly, Northern Ireland Opera are not producing a single opera this year.

Perhaps there are additional financial and boardroom pressures on Northern Ireland Opera, but it's a bit of a come-down from Oliver Mears' more open, diverse and adventurous tenure where we had the first ever fully staged Wagner in Belfast (The Flying Dutchman), where Richard Strauss (Salome) was programmed rather than Johann Strauss, where there were newly commissioned work from local composers (NI Opera Shorts), where you could see a work as boldly innovative and uproariously entertaining as Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest and where the cross-over works with local theatre were by Benjamin Britten (The Turn of the Screw) and Thomas Adès (Powder her Face). Bolder choices are also being made south of the border by the newly formed Irish National Opera, most recently with Duke Bluebeard's Castle and an ambitious Aida. Thank heavens too for Opera North's visits to Belfast.

A review of Sweeney Todd therefore has no meaningful place here; the work itself has little of substance or subtext, certainly not in the context of the above. Full credit however to the team for making an effort to sell this as something more interesting that it really is in the theatre programme. In the programme a Queen's University lecturer considers the rights and wrongs of a fictional character who takes revenge on society by homicidal barbering and cannibalistic culinary, while an interview with conductor Sinead Hayes points to certain operatic qualities, complexities of leitmotif and dissonance in the musical composition. The musical performance was certainly of the usual high standard from the assembled musicians, and it was superbly paced and conducted to bring all the colour and vigour out of the songs with wonderful clarity and precision.

As a theatrical performance it also more than delivered. Regardless of musical tastes and definitions of what constitutes 'quality' or 'worthy' music, Sondheim comes alive on the stage in live performance and it can even have a bit of an edge (as with the recent Assassins at the Gate Theatre in Dublin - again, more adventurous programming than Sweeney Todd). The combination of music, lighting, colour, costume and (amplified) voices creates its own magic just as effectively as any live opera production, and even at this early preview stage in the run, the production was clearly well-rehearsed and ran relatively smoothly, even with all the little compartments and doors to be managed. Particular credit should be given to Dorota Karolczak of the make-up and costume department for making this look absolutely terrific.

The singing was of the highest quality; Steven Page as Sweeney Todd, Julie Mullins as Mrs Lovett and John Porter as Anthony Hope all superb singers who are equally as good at characterisation. They were well-balanced alongside Jack Wolfe and Jessica Hackett who give the kind of fresh-voiced delivery you want from Tobias Ragg and Joanna, but there was little that about the direction to bring anything original or exciting to give this a bit more of an edge. Ultimately Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street remains a Victorian Penny Dreadful horror tale that has nothing realistic or relevant to say about life, justice or morality; it's just a colourful treatment of a bland entertainment.

Only Matthew Cavan managed to really bring some spirited individuality and unpredictability to the production (as he did also in The Threepenny Opera) as the outrageous Signor Pirelli. If Belfast's great pantomime dame May McFettridge ever calls it a day (heaven forbid!), we have a potential replacement here. I mean that as the highest compliment to the Belfast stage, but unfortunately it's not much of a compliment for Northern Ireland Opera.

Links: Northern Ireland Opera, Lyric Theatre Belfast