The 50th Anniversary celebrations of the Sydney Opera House provided an opportunity for this Sydney season of Victorian Opera’s acclaimed production of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler Grand Guignol masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; a production Victorian Opera shares with New Zealand Opera.
This production stars Ben Mingay, a charismatic performer with an arresting deep baritone voice, as the murderous barber, Sweeney Todd. Mingay fascinates with his ability to persuade the audience to invest in Todd’s humanity and recognise the effects of the deep hurt caused by his experiences, even when he’s at his most horrifying.
Having been transported to Australia on trumped up charges, Todd believes that his wife poisoned herself in his absence, resulting in his daughter, Johanna, being made a ward of the venal Judge Turpin. Todd is obsessed with wreaking vengeance on those responsible for his transportation.
Returning to London Todd discovers that his old shop is still vacant, and that Mrs Lovett, who runs a pie-shop below, has kept his treasured razors for him. Mrs Lovett is attracted to Todd, recognising his obsession as an opportunity to save her failing business and suggests a bizarre scheme through which both can achieve their goals. Todd readily agrees, setting in motion a ghastly chain of events.
As Mrs Lovett, Antoinette Halloran matches Mingay every step of the way with her multi-facetted performance. Possessing superb comic timing matched with precisely phrased vocals, Halloran is able to pivot on a hairpin from being hysterically funny and lovable one moment to frighteningly menacing the next. Her duets with Todd, A Little Priest” and By the Sea are highlights.
Director Stuart Maunder, has taken advantage of Roger Kirk’s dark wooden setting and heavy, swirling costumes to conjure up an unsettling atmosphere of vermin-infested London streets, shrouded in ever-present fog, through which shadowy figures appear and disappear; their faces lit by the harsh footlights that are a feature of Philip Lethlean’s atmospheric lighting design; reproduced on this occasion by Jason Morphett.
Fastidious sound design by Jim Atkins, and admirable attention to articulation by all the cast, insure that not a word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics, with their brain-teasing interior rhymes is lost, while Simon Holt and his brilliant nine-piece band do full justice to the discordant harmonies so integral to Sondheim’s complex arrangements.
Superb performances abound, led by Kanen Breen, resplendent in a remarkable leather coat, as the Beadle. Margaret Trubiano is a standout as the mysterious omnipresent Beggar Woman, while Jeremi Campese breaks hearts as Tobias Ragg particularly in the duet with Halloran, Not While I’m Around.
Ashleigh Rubenach and Harry Targett are perfectly cast as the young lovers, Johanna and Anthony Hope, and Dean Vice as Judge Turpin and Benjamin Rasheed in dual roles as Adolfo Pirelli and Jonas Fogg add considerable vocal and dramatic heft with their performances.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is acknowledged as one of Sondheim’s most brilliant achievements. This production serves it well. Although this season is comparatively brief, catch it while you can, otherwise you’re likely to wait a long time to experience a better one.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Drama Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Wednesday 26 July 2023
Season continues to 27 August 2023
Information and Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com
Images: Antoinette Halloran and Ben Mingay in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – photo by Daniel Boud
Review: Bill Stephens OAM