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A Cut Above

A high-octane concert version of Stephen Sondheim's Grand Guignol epic "Sweeney Todd" revives an old debate about opera versus musical theater.

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Worlds collide: Broadway's George Hearn is the vengeful barber, opera's Paul Plishka his victim, in Sweeney Todd.  

Apparently it still bothers some purists to see our distinguished longhair institutions soil their hands with projects that look suspiciously like pop culture. It's even worse when such events attract a large, approving audience. The issue recently arose again, when the New York Philharmonic gave a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd in Avery Fisher Hall with a cast of singers more or less equally drawn from the worlds of opera and Broadway. This marked the grand finale of the orchestra's four-year "American Classics" initiative, and it proudly acknowledged the important place that this 1979 musical occupies in American culture.

Can anyone still doubt that fact? Voices that protest the point sound fainter these days, finding it harder than ever to defend their position. Even those who do not thrill to Sondheim -- his musical style is a taste that I am still trying to acquire -- must admire the skill, craft, and distinctive originality of his scores. That alone would qualify them to be heard and seen in concert halls, opera houses, or wherever audiences gather for something more than idle entertainment. Beyond that, if we want to take these works seriously, where else are we to experience them with any regularity? Since there are no established organizations expressly designed to preserve and perform America's musical theater, the classic works from Herbert and Romberg through Kern and Gershwin to Rodgers and Sondheim lack a permanent and proper home. The occasional Broadway revival is no answer, so right now our opera companies and symphony orchestras are probably best equipped to do the job.

Questions of aesthetics aside, the Philharmonic's performance was indisputably first-class, and fortunately it will be issued on the orchestra's own record label. There was even a stage production of sorts: Director Lonny Price ingeniously maneuvered the cast in front of, behind, and through the musicians, creating more than enough theatrical energy to compensate for the lack of sets to conjure up the Dickensian squalor and stench that is such an integral part of the show's sinister atmosphere. It's a shame that persistent back problems forced Bryn Terfel to cancel his appearances in the title role -- it would have been fascinating to hear the demon barber of Fleet Street sung by one of today's most imposing operatic voices opposite the Broadway-styled Mrs. Lovett of Patti LuPone. Instead, that experienced Sweeney, George Hearn, returned to the role and scored points with more than sufficient vocal menace, effectively understating the character's chilling penchant for Grand Guignol violence.

Since classically trained singers, Americans especially, have become increasingly comfortable with pop idioms, richly textured musicals like Sondheim's can only benefit from genuine operatic voices that easily adapt to his vocal requirements. John Aler and Stanford Olsen, both lyric tenors and bel canto specialists, made the well-oiled music for the corrupt Beadle and the charlatan Pirelli sound that much more authentic. Paul Plishka's ripe bass-buffo as Judge Turpin and Heidi Grant Murphy's sweet lyric soprano were also on target, although Audra McDonald's larger-than-life vocal intensity seemed almost too overwhelming for the Beggar Woman.

The Philharmonic under Andrew Litton played Jonathan Tunick's masterly orchestration with a keen appreciation of its astringent sound world, formal variety, and instrumental sophistication -- one more compelling reason why this musical thriller and others of like quality are more than deserving of such deluxe treatment.


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