NZ Opera’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street took me by surprise. It’s the fifth opera I have watched to date, the first one I have seen presented in English, and the first that thrilled me from start to finish.
When we settled into our plush seats, my eyes saw a simple set – but when the music and show began, I felt a curious sensation; I was no longer on land, but at sea. The luring music of the orchestra and chorus were as rippling waves in a dangerous ocean, surging with secrets that begged to be told. In the opening scene, I saw not a costumed cast, but living ghosts rising from the ground … Many things came together to make the show what it is. Those accustomed to NZ Opera’s high standards will expect nothing less, and I am certainly once again impressed. Costumes, make-up and the simple but convincing set leave little need for imagination to make the world of Sweeney Todd feel too real for comfort. As the program rightly says – it is indeed “a journey from darkness to illuminated darkness”, brilliantly achieved through the use of contrast. One never escapes darkness throughout the night, but if black is a colour, one sees its many tones and shades, and thus revels in its startling beauty.
Steven Sondheim’s clever lyrics are a pure delight to take in, as is Johanna’s irresistible birdsong (Amelia Barry). The lively Mrs Lovett has me hooked from the time she provides a hearty, flour-dusted whiff of the “worst pies in London” (Antoinette Halloran). Todd’s unrelenting cold hands bring necessary chills and truly, I cannot imagine a better rendition of his role (Teddy Tahu Rhodes).
Darkness builds like a castle of waves as the show progresses – when Tobias goes through the horror of finding a fingernail and other human identifiers in his pie, I am right there with him in his terrible pit of revulsion. Cascading sound and the effective use of stage lights render me hot and cold at once, and I find myself drawing my scarf closer around my body; needing, somehow, a certain reassurance even as I revel in the masterful delivery of this violent tale. I won’t be hungry for pie for a while, but I am certainly looking forward to my next serving of opera.
Verdict: An impressive performance by way of dark intrigue topped with a golden crust of spine-tingling humour and exemplary design. A feast which scares and beckons … by all means have your dinner, but leave some room for pie!
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Starts this Friday the 30th in Wellington. See NZ Opera website for dates and times for Wellington and Christchurch shows. www.nzopera.com/Sweeney-Todd
Images © David Rowland