Shaving Crème

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

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.

Keller’s main goal is simply to let us know who the people in this opera are and why they behave the way they do. Anna’s obsession with Giovanni has clearly more to do with her strong sexual attraction to him than revenge for her father’s death—her withering gaze on her ineffectual fiancé, Ottavio, during the postlude to her vengeance aria (Why am I engaged to this worm?) speaks volumes. The complexity of her motives is fully explored and effectively contrasted with the more obvious frustrations that gnaw at Elvira or the zestful Zerlina’s uncomplicated libido. Giovanni himself is presented as the self-focused center of the storms he stirs up, a force of nature and as such an eternal mystery. Everyone interacts with choreographic grace, a staging as notable for its beauty of design as much as for its thoughtful insights into the opera’s characters.

The directorial approach is not so regulated that it inhibits the singers from contributing their own expressive ideas, which is perhaps one reason why I find Thomas Hampson a bit disappointing in the title role. He is a cultured, musical baritone whose choices are never less than intelligent, but in this context his rather faceless, coolly detached Giovanni lacks the magnetism and dangerous allure that would explain his fascination for everyone onstage. Hampson is especially pale next to René Pape as the Don’s servant Leporello, a bundle of comic energy and a joy to hear. Even Ildar Abdrazakov as Masetto, Zerlina’s bumpkin boyfriend, projects more personality and dimension than the nobleman who is constantly outwitting him. In Keller’s scheme, Ottavio appears even more nerdy than usual, a fact that Gregory Turay has no problem emphasizing, although it’s a shame his tenor sounded out of sorts on opening night.

The three principal ladies are the main joys of the current cast, each presenting a different vocal and physical type, each a perfect fit for the role. As Anna, Anja Harteros is a tall, dark beauty whose smoldering emotions erupt into cascades of gorgeously produced tone, all right on the mark and thrilling to hear. Christine Goerke isn’t afraid to show us Elvira’s shrewish side, or how that façade so often melts into the vulnerable woman this wronged creature truly is. She, too, sings brilliantly, if occasionally with a touch of acid that may not be to all tastes. Zerlina does not offer more charm and spunk than Hei-Kyung Hong, whose honeyed soprano brushes her two arias exquisitely. The whole performance benefits from James Levine’s careful shaping of the score, his sensitivity to the singers, and the orchestra’s relishing of the opera’s many instrumental miracles.

One man’s vision is another’s nightmare. I can’t say that the production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse recently offered by Lincoln Center’s “New Visions” series at the John Jay Theater sent me reeling out the door in horror, but it was pretty weird. Several of the opera’s characters and more than a third of the score had been jettisoned by Philippe Pierlot, who also conducted the small period-instrument orchestra. What was left of the opera was enacted by nearly life-size puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company, each one manipulated by a puppeteer and the singer of the role. Behind them was a screen showing mostly medical videos of operations, barium meals, gastroscopies, angiograms, arthroscopy, etc. Go figure.

There was nothing especially offensive about the concept and design, all from the fertile imagination of director-designer-animator William Kentridge. In fact, the musical aspects of the performance (originally produced by Théâtre de la Monnaie of Brussels) were never less than admirable, in particular the expressive treatment of Monteverdi’s vocal lines by Kristina Hammarström (Penelope) and Furio Zanasi (Ulisse). Still, the whole package struck me as arbitrary to the point of meaninglessness, a self-indulgent romp in a mixed-media sandbox that never established any real contact with an opera that so movingly celebrates man’s triumph over blind fate.

Any evening devoted to the life of Pauline Viardot (1821–1910) is guaranteed to be a winner, and the New York Festival of Song’s recent program in Merkin Hall did not disappoint. A protean figure, Viardot sang, composed, and acted as muse for virtually every major European composer from Rossini and Berlioz to Brahms and Fauré. She was the great love of Russian playwright-novelist Ivan Turgenev; her father, Manuel Garcia, was the first Almaviva in Rossini’s Barber of Seville; her elder sister, Maria Malibran, reigned as the Callas of her day; and her brother, the younger Manuel, was the age’s most celebrated singing teacher.

Practically every phrase of Viardot’s career was celebrated in a program titled “A Bel Canto Dynasty.” Songs by the whole family were included, along with a cornucopia of goodies by the important composers who were inspired by Viardot’s voice, intellect, cosmopolitan sophistication, and sheer charm. Stephanie Blythe stole vocal honors with her richly textured, voluminous mezzo-soprano, but soprano Dina Kuznetsova and baritone John Hancock gave much pleasure as well. Thanks are once again in order to NYFOS’s artistic director, Steven Blier, who devised the program, played the delicious piano accompaniments, wrote the fascinating program notes, and provided the witty spoken commentary.

Shaving Crème