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Sweeney Todd at the Opera

Sweeney Todd, by Adelaide Now
Sweeney Todd at the Opera in Perth 2019, picture courtesy of The West

From the moment the floodlights cast their light on the stage, the mood darkened as the desolate emptiness set in – bleak and dreary as we were plunged into 18th century London, to hear the tragic story of Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. 

The operatic production launched in London in the 1970’s and has since been adapted to the 2007 cinema release of Tim Burton’s visceral blood-dripping masterpiece of the same name. This true story is told through a haunting falsetto of operatic tones and human tragedy. 

If you think you’ve seen it before, you’re not wrong – this show mimics the movie almost scene by scene as the story plays out through the most unthinkable tragedy of our anti-hero Benjamin Barker, aka Mr Todd, mourning the loss of his family through rape, death and thievery of his daughter as he is cast aside and banished. The bitterness plagues his eventual return to unite with his murderous accomplice Mrs Lovett, as they plot their cannibalistic revenge together by making delicious meat pies (all with good humour, of course).

The monster is henceforth born out of tragedy, grief, and a desire for revenge that is both palpable, yet seemingly justified. 

Cast

Singer and actor Ben Mingay takes on the bold role of the infamous Sweeney Todd and carries the performance through his dedication to the role and the character as a whole.  

Opera star, Antoinette Halloran is cast as the seductive, quirky and conniving Mrs Lovett, and the great Alan Rickman’s character is resurrected through a magnificent gritty performance of the evil Judge Turpin, played by James Clayton. Halloran and Mingay’s chemistry is perfect, and as one observes the relationship as a whole, the manipulative side of a deranged murderous woman taking advantage of a man’s tragedy and grief for her own reasons comes clearly into focus.

Music

The haunting music and lyrics is thanks to the incredible Stephen Sondheim who first launched the opera in 1979, and recreated the true story of Sweeney Todd, making him a tragic hero. The songs tell haunting stories and vary significantly, from ‘My Friends’ – a song being sung to his razors as they are prepared to slit throats and drip rubies, to ‘Nothing’s Gonna Harm You’ – a song sung by the innocent youth Tobias Ragg (played by Joshua Reckless) to his mistress as he fears for her life by the imposing Mr Todd.

Musical Director and Chorus Master Brett Weymark conducts this visceral and explosive score and the musical fusion echoes both the depths of despair and tragedy, to the light and fluffy moments as Mrs Lovett imagines the blissful existence of her ‘family’.

The opera chorus comprises of a mix of Sopranos, Mezzo Sopranos, Tenors and Basses as they take on the characters of the townsfolk, connecting each scene and building on the main characters’ stories nicely.

Direction

Directed by Stuart Maunder, each character’s placement perfectly echoes the story as the physical movement shapes the operatic story-telling. Mauder said the story of Sweeney Todd was one of the most powerful theatrical horror tales ever set to music. My only criticism would be to draw more on Tim Burton’s film and paint the stage red with blood to make the killings less comical, and more disturbing, as the victims ride the one-way revolving barber chair down to the basement of fire and meat grinding.

Special guest critique (opera first-timer, Josh Tully)

Sweeney Todd was my first opera experience, and I can say as a satisfied audience member that it was a fantastic feeling to be there on opening night. Everything, from the stage design, the singing, the costumes, the actors and the wonderful orchestra who brought the music to life, was truly something to be wowed by, especially for someone who had reservations about attending the opera in the beginning.  Like many of us no doubt, I was exposed to the story with Tim Burton’s 2007 film and became a huge fan thanks to its musical numbers, gothic style and unique characters. To see it performed in the theatre was truly something special and has encouraged me, a fan of cinema, to seek out more play productions in the future. I commend all the actors and directors of this opera as they have done a masterful job bringing the popular story to life in the form of an opera, and I encourage a young audience member such as myself to be more open in seeking out and attending more operas in the future.

Rating: 9/10

This is a sold-out show and rightly so, after an enormous build-up amongst horror and theatre aficionados alike. This horror opera pulls out all the stops and embraces tragedy, pain and grief with black humour and sexual innuendo. Hopefully Sweeney Todd will grace WA Opera once again, but for now, go out and revisit this film again and buy the soundtrack, for there is nothing quite like it and there is no place like London (for all the Sweeney Todd fans).

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