The Welsh National Opera’s Production of Sweeney Todd was a pretty typical opera rendition of a musical: the voices were superb; the singing more concerned with hitting the right notes than with conveying mood and feeling; the acting was weak and generally lacking in characterisation; and the whole show was slow and had a rather portentous tone: it lacked verve and pizzazz. The audience, however, lapped it up. What I was most interested in, aside from listening to one of the very greatest of Broadway musical scores played by an excellent orchestra, was the staging.
The WNO has been doing very daring things with video mapping, lighting and other aspects of mise-en-scène. Seeing Mariusz Trelinski’s gorgeously inventive joint productions of Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude (see image below) and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (see image above), with its neon frames, video imagings of Occupied Paris and film noir effects in the 2013-14 season was a revelation and remains thrilling to think about. It seemed to bring together the visual and narrative possibilities of cinema with immediacy of theatre and the emotional power of great voices and expert musicians singing and playing in the now. Each production was ver powerful, seeing them together made them made them even richer, and both have left a vivid imprint.
Sweeney Todd is not as visually exciting though there is a wonderful moment at the beginning when I thought what we were seeing was a video image mapped onto a bed-sheet of Sweeney Todd with his wife and child before he was sent to prison for 15 years, the catalyst to the narrative, which turned out to be ingenious work of lighting from Chris Davey, and becomes a thrilling theatrical moment when the characters appear from behind the sheet — which stands in for their flat and, later still, for the barbershop — and start descending onto the stage.
Though one can quibble about the performative and interpretative dimensions of the singing, it was still a joy to hear those powerful, trained voices singing that brilliant score. The one performer I would like to single out, however, is Jamie Muscato’s Anthony Hope. Everytime he came onstage and opened his mouth, something beautiful happened that seemed to offer hope not only to the character of Johanna but to us. The one performer who not only had a great voice but who used it expressively to convey feeling, and did so in a way that was powerful, immediate and touching.
In spite of all my reservations, and though in some ways it was not the equal of a school production from Eltham I saw earlier in the year in Edinburgh, I would have relished a chance to see it again