Opera Omaha brings you the grim tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber seeking his revenge on Fleet Street in the city of 19th century London. Written in 1973 by Stephen Sondheim with book by Hugh Wheeler, it was derived from the play by Christopher Bond and eerie Victorian legends.
Sondheim gleaned inspiration from the Bond production and produced one of the most classic pieces of theatre — both in musical and opera form — to grace the stage. Much like a “Jack the Ripper,” urban legend of his time, Sweeney Todd is a murderous saga for the ages. It’s undoubtedly loosely based upon its operatic predecessor, “The Barber of Seville,” so how fitting for an opera company to stage it.
Unlike the Tim Burton movie adaptation starring Johnny Depp or even the original 1970’s production, this version is produced very much in the vein of any other modernized, stripped-down operatic production such as Orfeo or Turandot. From the opening of the overture led by a Greek chorus garbed in red rags, we sense the impending doom that awaits with the introduction of each ill-fated character.
Ex-convict Benjamin Barker has adopted the pseudonym Sweeney Todd in his hopes to resume his barber business and seek vengeance on the man who violated his wife and stole his daughter-Judge Turpin. Grammy-nominated baritone and musical theatre crossover artist Zachary James as Sweeney Todd has a steely timbre that’s cool and calm with an impressive range. James spends half of a song lying on the ground in mental anguish, pensively drawing the blade of his glistening razor in the air as he sings, “My Friends.”
Turpin fights his own demons lusting after Todd’s daughter and his ward Johanna Barker. Surely he will have his day in court and be brought to justice by Sweeney Todd. Turpin played by Rod Nelmen, ( a regular bass soloist for symphonies and opera productions who has garnered over 70 roles) shows lecherous intent in his advances toward Johanna in “Mea Culpa.”
Todd meets Nellie Lovette, played by Emily Pulley, who encourages his evil machinations as she deviously finds a way to enhance her pie flavors with his unsuspecting victims. The juxtaposition of murder and a melancholic longing for his daughter in number “Johanna,” creates this sinister yet sympathetic type of dichotomy. We see into Todd’s pain and understand his dark motives. As he plots his revenge and attempts to lure in Turpin, other corrupt men about the town become hapless casualties and the secret to Lovette’s increasing popularity (“A Little Priest.”)
Johanna Barker in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” sung by soprano Ashley Emerson, (The Abduction from the Seraglio), has the dreamlike, angelic vocal quality of the classic ingenue locked away from the world. Her high lilting notes are pristine and pure as she waits by her window, captive like the bird who longs to fly.
Jonathan Johnson as Anthony Hope (Eugene Onegin, Pagliacci) is a beautiful lyric tenor who displays a graceful, soaring warmth in his duet in “Johanna.” Anthony’s beckoning to Johanna to run away with him is visceral and tender. Other notable moments are Michael Kuhn’s Tobias Ragg singing “Not While I’m Around,” a touching serenading duet to Mrs. Lovette. James’ high note in “Epiphany,” is worth alone the price of admission.
Barry Banks (a repertoire including the Met and the Royal Opera House) in his role as flamboyant “Italian” rival Adolpho Pirelli demonstrates precision in both his stamina and execution during “The Contest.” With each note he possesses dramatic flair and a rich, ringing squillo. Jason Ferrante as Beadle Bramford displays an impeccably exquisite falsetto in his rendition of a parlor song performance.
The set (Martin Marchitto) is minimalistic and abstract. A sign to Mrs. Lovette’s pie shop hangs from the air; a suspended glowing neon ring burns brightly red with each homicide as it alludes to the visual of the bakeshop oven. A revolving stage platform transports the audience from scene to scene, but a little imagination is required to gain the full effect.
As dark as the story is, there were moments of light-hearted humor. The late Sondheim never ceases to amaze with his clever use of word choice, rhyme scheme and verbiage. For this reason Sweeney Todd is charmingly macabre, leaving you wanting more of its morbid tale. The musical score is iconic and with each dissonant, minor note you relish the artistry and composition of a horror story turned “opera”-style musical. The story never truly resolves, nor is he vindicated. We don’t see him get the justice he obsesses over, yet somehow the tragic ending is perfect retribution for the damage done.
Sanguine and full of brilliance in both music and movement, Sweeney Todd adds new meaning to the term, “bad blood,” and how vengeance can spiral out of control. A grisly, cautionary tale, Sondheim’s iconic Sweeney Todd is the epitome of the Victorian “penny dreadful,” American opera. It’s theatrical, dramatic, and horrific in all its glory.
Sweeney Todd runs February 25th and 27th at the Orpheum Theatre. COVID protocols apply.