Sweeney Todd (English National Opera, London Coliseum)

We were lucky enough to see the final performance (of a short run of 14) of the ENO’s ‘Sweeney Todd’, a production first performed at the Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic.  Ported over for this show were Bryn Terfel (Sweeney Todd), Emma Thompson (Mrs Lovett) and Philip Quast (Judge Turpin), with the addition of Matthew Seadon-Young as Anthony, Katie Hall as Johanna, John Owen-Jones as Pirelli, Jack North as Tobias, Rosalie Craig as the Beggar Woman, and Alex Gaumond as the Beadle.

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At the start it seems as if we are going to see a straight concert performance, but this seems a waste of a good cast and a vibrant, beautiful venue, so as Terfel and co throw down their scores, destroy items on the stage, and hand out props from an ENO trunk, we pitch into Sondheim’s powerful score with some style, and stuffy concert formality is pushed aside for banners, graffiti, and bloody handprints (the conductor even sports one on the back of his shirt, visible through his ripped black jacket).

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Whether the production is a success or not generally depends on whether the balance of darkness and comedy is depicted correctly – and in Thompson there is a saucy playfulness around a hard interior which is quite happy to condone and encourage mass murder to encourage the pie trade.  In Terfel’s magnificent Sweeney we see an icy resolve for revenge, not just on the men who violated his wife and stole his daughter, but on everyone who needs a shave.  Truly there are no closer shaves to be found on Fleet Street.

Sondheim’s score, too, is towering, walking the line between musical and opera without effort – so that one of opera’s greatest bass-baritones fits well in the role alongside a musical comedy actress and a baritone who has played most of the major roles in musicals without having formal voice training.  Owen-Jones may be slightly wasted in the role of Pirelli, but he is fun, while Philip Quast is hissably repellent as the judge who finds himself lusting after his adopted daughter, who ‘looks lovely in her white muslin dress’.  Absent from London stages since La Cage Aux Folles six years ago, he’s welcome back in the UK after a run of successes in his native Australia, and it is a privilege to hear him sing the duet ‘Pretty Women’ with Terfel.

Thompson has two comedy high points in ‘The Worst Pies in London’ and ‘By The Sea’ (with a handy spray bottle to evoke the briny), while her duet with Terfel, ‘A Little Priest’ sizzles with menace against audience, orchestra and unsuspecting pie eaters alike.  In a red outfit with slashed collar and headscarf, she totters between industrious baker and lovestruck widow, and she has great chemistry with her Sweeney.

Thumbs up for this production’s Anthony and Johanna too, with their ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ song of young love, and their eventual look of horror at the mouth of hell in the bakehouse’s final carnage.  And Tobias, the young lad who we first see as Pirelli’s assistant, a cheeky chap with a fast mouth, becomes a broken bird, and perhaps his story is the saddest of all.

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Royal Opera Live: Der fliegende Holländer, 2015 – ★★★★½

Without having the ready money to spend on seeing a live production at the Royal Opera House, I decided instead to do the next-best thing, and watch the relay to cinemas for the final performance of Wagner’s popular opera of ‘The Flying Dutchman’.

Tim Albery’s production is now on its third revival, and the role of the Dutchman was played by Wales’ finest bass-baritone, the marvellous Bryn Terfel, who has really grown into this part over the years: one might say it is one of his signature roles.

Here his dour and dark captain, doomed to sail his ghostly ship through inhospitable waters for eternity, was complemented by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka. She is in her fifties, but managed to convey through her acting and singing a portrait of Senta, a young girl in obsessive love with a legend, with her toy ship and the stories she tells her co-workers about the pale seafarer and his need for redemption.

Some of Albery’s choices might be suspect to Wagnerian purists – the ending has lost the sense of the dramatic (instead of Senta plunging into the icy waves she instead collapses holding her ship while her friends look on), and there is a lot of water (using what resembles a shower curtain to throw water against before curtain up to convey the storm, and having various characters paddling in the stream where the toy ship is anchored).

No sound problems at the Westfield London’s Vue, though, although some were reported at other screenings. The staging and presentation was quite cinematic – I like to see close-ups and be in the thick of the action. Interestingly, the most melodic and memorable pieces of the score are not those sung by the Dutchman, but rather those by Senta, and by the Steersman and the crew.

The crew’s party was jarringly modern, with a feel of Newcastle on a Saturday night with short-skirted ladies and hard drinking men, but the appearance of the ghostly crew of the Dutchman’s ship was effective. I also liked the line of sewing machines at which Senta and her friends dreamed and sang.

Peter Rose as Daland might have been a little below par (we were warned before the start that he had a heavy cold) but the pro came out in decent voice and did well to make it through to the end. No harm done there.

Great production, and I’d heartily recommend these live relays for anyone not sure about opera, as well as those, like me, who have seen these pieces before and just go along to enjoy them in a different setting.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Concert review: The First Night of the Proms

The BBC Proms always seems a ‘British’ affair whatever the music on offer, and this First Night proved that to the hilt with no fewer than four English composers represented with five pieces, each conducted by a different person in a sort of classical homage to the Olympic relay.

The programme was eclectic despite the geographical link – a new percussion and brass-heavy piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage (‘Canon Fever’), conducted by Edward Gardner’; Edward Elgar’s superb ‘In London Town’, with its playful instrument interplay, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington; Frederick Delius’ setting of Walt Whitman’s beautiful poem ‘Sea Drift’, sung by Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, conducted by Sir Mark Elder; Michael Tippett’s ‘Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles’, with its folk melodies and Irish jig section, conducted by Martyn Brabbins; and finally Elgar’s overblown ‘Coronation Ode’, originally composed for the crowning of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and revived for their successors George and Mary, conducted by Gardner again. It ends with an early version of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ which seems rather out of place so early in the season. Joining the chorus to perform the ‘Ode’ were Susan Gritton, a light soprano, Sarah Connolly, a feisty mezzo, Robert Murray, a melodious tenor, and Gerald Finley, a serviceable bass-baritone.

The conducting ‘relay’ was rather novel but didn’t really work, and I would have liked to see more of Norrington in particular, who is a fascinating conductor to watch, particularly with reportoire he obviously knows so well and enjoys. Still, in this Olympic year the Proms should be applauded for trying something different, and for presenting a programme of music from ‘home’.

Concert review: Brynfest #1 and #2, Royal Festival Hall

For the past two nights we have attended ‘Brynfest’, a celebration of Wales and the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who has pitched up at London’s Royal Festival Hall for a four-day festival.

Wednesday’s show was entitled ‘The Golden Age of Broadway’ and directed by Sheffield Theatres artistic director and Sondheim specialist Daniel Evans (who as a singer himself has appeared with John Wilson at the BBC Proms). Sian Phillips narrated and introduced the singers, including Bryn himself, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham, Emma Williams, and Julian Ovenden, and the music ranged from Rodgers and Hammerstein (Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma, The King and I), Cole Porter (Kiss Me Kate, Anything Goes), to Darion and Leigh (Man of La Mancha), Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), and Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady).

Bryn Terfel has a history of recording musical theatre and has performed in Sweeney Todd, so it is no surprise to see him here, having a good time, just as he did in the Sondheim Prom in 2010. Whether singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘So In Love’, ‘The Impossible Dream’, or letting his hair down in ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ he certainly provides entertainment value. Clive Rowe recreated his triumph as Nicely Nicely in ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’ and was a sweetly unusual Freddy in ‘On The Street Where You Live’, while Julian Ovenden impressed in Carousel’s ‘Soliloquy’ – less so as Tony in ‘Maria’ (his voice takes on a Jolson-like quality at times which can be distracting but which would serve him well if the musical play ‘Jolson’ is ever revived!). As for Hannah Waddingham, her ‘Something Wonderful’ was just that, while she tried gamely to better the trumpets in ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ with a bevy of chorus dancers. Emma Williams was sparky in her duet of ‘You’re the Top’ with Clive Rowe, both making the most of Porter’s clever wordplay.

The choice for official finale, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ from Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ was inspired, inspirational, and beautiful. A well deserved encore of the lead tune from ‘Oklahoma’ left us with smiles on our faces and humming various tunes on the way home.

Thursday saw a change of pace to Bryn’s more usual milieu – the world of opera. In ‘An Evening of Opera Classics’ he teamed with tenor Laurence Brownlee, soprano Oksana Dyka, and mezzo Elizabeth DeShong to present selections from operas ranging from Macbeth to Tosca, Eugene Onegin to Mefistofele. Brownlee is a high tenor with an engaging personality which the audience warmed to, and although Dyka did not move me much with her ‘Vissi d’arte’ (for me, the gold standard of a Tosca is Callas), she had a tuneful if flavourless voice. DeShong – a late replacement as the originally announced singer was ill – has a commanding tone and filled the hall with sound effortlessly.

The best of the night – Terfel’s Scarpia in Tosca aside – was the duet between him and Brownlee in probably my favourite opera duet, ‘Au Fond du Temple Saint’ from ‘The Pearl Fishers’, a beautiful blending of the melody of two human voices. It didn’t disappoint. The Welsh National Opera orchestra and chorus – on both nights – were excellent and worked very hard, and nods must go to conductors Gareth Valentine (Broadway) and Gareth Jones (Opera Classics).

A compilation programme from Brynfest is scheduled to air on S4C at 8pm on the 15th July 2012. Last night we were very aware of the camera directly behind us as the operators were having a conversation throughout. Next time, gentlemen, keep it a bit quieter for those of us who don’t like to hear our Macbeths or Toscas punctuated by nattering …