One week ago, I saw my first opera with friends in my grad school program. A performance of Sweeney Todd was given at The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY. Glimmerglass is a lovely place and my program was treated to a very nice lunch and tour. We also got to attend a Q&A with Stephen Sondheim. It was a great experience.
Lacking in the dramatic violence one would expect from this Sondheim classic, along with other ambiguous stage decisions, this operetta of a great story fell a little short in execution.
On Saturday, July 30, Sweeney Todd was performed at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown. For a first-time viewer of Sweeney Todd, the story itself was very enjoyable, but the production as a whole was sort of lackluster. The music was good, but the performers seemed to be holding back in the first half, however the second act was more lively and captivating.
The opening staging looked like a bland church basement and although it did compliment the eeriness of the storyline, it failed to really set the scene for the show. It wasn’t until the second act when the stage began to come alive a little bit more and it really felt like the story was taking you somewhere.
In addition to vague stage settings, the costumes were also confusing. Some looked like they came from the Victorian era (when the original Sweeney Todd takes place), but many of them appeared to be from a 1960s or 70s vintage shop. A couple of the polyester sequenced outfits looked like they belonged to a 1970s talk show host and they didn’t flow well with the rest of the characters’ costumes.
The music was overall very pleasant, especially the orchestra. If it weren’t for them, it would have hardly felt like Sweeney Todd. The opera singers sounded lovely, but at times it was hard to hear them, especially in the first act. Reading the lyrics on the screen above the stage is helpful, but it can also be distracting from what’s happening on the stage. The presence of the chorus was confusing at times as they shifted from being in the background to being actual characters, but musically they sounded in sync and added a lot of value to the flow of the show.
Luretta Bybee stole much of the show as Mrs. Lovett. Her performance was witty, comical and entertaining, which is almost ironic for such a dark plot. Greer Grimsley played a pretty decent Sweeney Todd and he definitely had one of the strongest vocal presences. Harry Greenleaf played a charming and sweet Anthony that had good chemistry with Emily Pogorelc as Johanna. Pogorelc is small, but mighty. Her vocals were elegant and she played a convincing Johanna.
The biggest disappointment was in the lack of gore. Sweeney Todd is known for being bloody and gruesome, but other than a few splashes of red paint on the wall and a dramatic red light in one scene, the infamous barber chair murders were pretty dull. The scariest parts were not the murders, but when Peter Volpe executed his role as the creepy Judge Turpin who sexually abuses Sweeney Todd’s wife and daughter.
Overall, the show was mediocre. It could have been better with a more clearly executed time period relayed through the staging and costumes. It was obviously meant to be a more modern take, but it was too focused on trying to make sure that the audience knew it was an up-to-date London setting and not as focused on the overall harmony of the performance.