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Victorian Opera: Sweeney Todd

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Published: 17th July, 2015

It’s generally not regarded as good form to review a preview; in fact it’s almost a contradiction in terms. Previews, just one up from dress rehearsals, are meant to be forgiving, allowing for production glitches and bumpy patches for the musicians, so these can be fixed before opening night. However, needs must, and Victorian Opera was confident enough of its new production to provide Classic Melbourne this early opportunity to see it. It was a no-risk strategy, as it turns out.

We have director Stuart Maunder to thank, foremost for his superb realisation of the piece, but also for his extended program notes which give the historical background and modern context for this unique piece of musical theatre.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is “a musical thriller” by Stephen Sondheim, its darkness encapsulated early in Sweeney Todd’s words:

 There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit

and the vermin of the world inhabit it

and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit

and it goes by the name of London.

This is an uncompromising villain, whose fascination relies on the power of his words, convincing acting and, most of all, powerful voice. In Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Victorian Opera found all of these and more – another inspired piece of casting by the company. It is surely the ultimate accolade that you can hardly wait for the next appearance of a character who is so utterly unlovable.

Providing both the romantic interest and partner in crime to the throat-slitting barber is the pie-maker Mrs Lovett, lending the most darkly comic element to the story. Soprano Antoinette Halloran is more often seen in The Merry Widow, Madama Butterfly and the like, and (before the performance) did not seem an obvious choice for the knife-wielding baker. But she was a triumph, most importantly in her singing and with an unexpectedly coarse edge to her speech. She also had a raunchiness, mixed with her innocent dreams of a cottage by the sea, sweetly articulated as if her daily tasks never included popping human bones into the incinerator.

Blake Bowden as Anthony Hope, Amelia Berry as Johanna and Ross Hannaford as Tobias Ragg added various dimensions of youthful innocence to the proceedings. Future reviews will no doubt recognise their contributions in more detail, with those of Phillip Rhodes as the Judge, and Kaneen Breen’s fine comic turn as the Beadle, matched only by David Rogers-Smith’s Pirelli. Dimity Shepherd’s Beggar Woman was a strong presentation, commanding the stage whenever she appeared, and Jeremy Kleeman was well cast as Jonas Fogg.

The other eleven members of the cast also have their biographies in the programs – and deservedly so. This is an ensemble piece and its strength was established from the outset thanks to the singers’ evocation of the “great black pit” that was Sweeney Todd’s London. The workable, dramatic grim set supported them, as did the excellent orchestra, with musical director Phoebe Briggs. The Gothic-sounding organ set a feeling of terror from the outset, although the shrill factory whistle seemed to be toned down a little after interval, (one of those tweaks that make previews invaluable!).

There is a “schools version” of Sweeney Todd which reputedly plays up the very real humour that runs though the piece, and tones down the violence. Be warned: this production is true to Sondheim’s intention and is masterful in its creation of a fascinated terror. It’s not one for the children! But for everyone else, it’s a masterful, well-integrated production with the best of singers/actors and creative staff that once again makes Classic Melbourne more than proud of “our” professional opera company, Victorian Opera. This may have just been a preview – but it presages a very successful season. Better book!

 

The picture by Jeff Busby is of Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Antoinette Halloran.

Sweeney Todd plays at the Arts Centre Playhouse, July 16-25. Details