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Shaving Crème

City Opera’s Sweeney Todd revival could win over even a Sondheim detractor; an unpretentious Don Giovanni; Monteverdi with puppets.


Pie, oh my: Elaine Paige as Mrs. Lovett and Mark Delavan as Sweeney at City Opera.  

A bland and listless show when the City Opera first staged it twenty years ago, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is back in the company’s repertory looking anything but that. The problem in 1984, as I recall it, was weak casting. After all, the production itself is a faithful re-creation of the original 1979 Broadway success, with Harold Prince’s epic staging (overseen here by Arthur Masella) unfolding in a Dickensian London that positively reeks of industrial squalor, thanks to atmospheric sets and costumes by Eugene and Franne Lee.

This time around, the two lead roles are right on the money and will surely satisfy any Sondheim connoisseur. It’s fitting, too, that Sweeney (Mark Delavan) comes from the world of opera and Mrs. Lovett (Elaine Paige), the cheery shopkeeper who serves up the demon barber’s victims in her meat pies, hails from the musical theater, thereby honoring the twin worlds that this unclassifiable work inhabits. Delavan’s burly baritone in fact suits Sondheim rather more than Verdi, where his woolly tone will disappoint those who expect to hear a cleanly spun bel canto phrase—hardly a problem in Sweeney Todd’s declamatory music. He can also move in and out of the dialogue with disarming ease, knitting song and speech seamlessly, while the sheer physical power of his voice and stage presence couldn’t be more to the point. Paige dances around this sinister figure with endless amounts of wit and energy, creating a partnership that never flags or disappoints.

“Paige dances around the sinister figure of Sweeney with endless amounts of wit and energy, creating a partnership that never flags.”

The rest of the cast is equally strong, singers with the genuine operatic voices that the music ideally requires—surely this is one Sondheim show that has found its way into the opera house to stay. I can’t imagine a more smoothly integrated quartet—in the best City Opera tradition—than soprano Sarah Coburn (Johanna), tenor Andrew Drost (Pirelli), baritone Keith Phares (Anthony Hope), and bass Walter Charles (Judge Turpin). Sondheim himself was on hand opening night to enjoy the ovation.

And I suppose he deserves it, even if his musical style is a taste I am still trying to acquire. For sheer mechanical efficiency, Sweeney Todd may be his most dazzling achievement to date: Canonic development, thematic recollection and transformation, pregnant harmonic and rhythmic motifs, vocal polyphony, and dozens of other sophisticated devices are all used with extraordinary ingenuity. I only wish I didn’t find the ingenious rhyme schemes, the musical pastiches, and the clickety-clack tunes so drab, brittle, and mean-spirited, the characters so one-dimensional, and the cruelty of the piece so gratuitous, cynical, and finally pointless. Clearly a minority report. Some people have been saying the same about Puccini’s Tosca for a century, another “shabby little shocker” that refuses to go away.

Perhaps the most refresh-ing aspect of the Metropolitan Opera’s new staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is its lack of pretension, a desire to challenge an audience with the piece itself rather than a production team’s bright new idea of it. And in this case, modesty hardly means inert routine. Director Marthe Keller has seen to it that all the characters onstage are developing personalities who move with a fluidity that is always rooted in the theatrical reality and absorbing musical perspectives the composer has provided. Michael Yeargan’s sets may strike some as a trifle minimalistic, but the traveling brick panels form an appropriate frame for the drama, permit lightning scene changes, and bring the action down front for our greater delectation of it. What a relief to have such a successful replacement to the Met’s previous Don Giovanni, a lumbering, decadently decorated affair from Franco Zeffirelli that never worked no matter how often it was tweaked.

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