Sunday, June 12, 2016

Portland Opera delivers mesmerizing "Sweeney Todd"

Guest review by Nan Knight Haemer

Portland Opera’s performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” on opening night (June 3rd) at Keller Auditorium was a fantastic experience from beginning to end. The production featured a creative set and staging from the 1984 revival by New York City Opera, including Albert Sherman as Stage Director. Sherman was Hal Prince’s assistant for that 1984 revival of Sweeney. I truly did not notice that three hours went by!

My first take-away: Portland Opera’s orchestra performed Sondheim beautifully, accurately, and with feeling. The quality of playing by the orchestra and conducting by George Manahan wonderfully conveyed the rhythmically and texturally complex score. That allowed the singer/actors to become their roles, pulling the audience into a very dark but riveting story of revenge.

My second take-away: Susannah Mars is a beast of an actress/singer. She ruled as Mrs. Lovett, the sociopathic pie purveyor. Moving from sung to spoken dialogue seamlessly, naturally, and fluidly, Mars embodied this very complex woman - from hilarious and punny, to poignant, to murderous, just like a fully fleshed character should! No hint of caricature, a brilliant incarnation by Mars.

The lighting by Ken Billington could have easily killed the show by going too dark in a mostly brown, industrial world. However, all the actors/singers were lit well when “on” and the stagehands and supernumeraries required to MOVE the amazing set were in shadow when remaining on stage. That was very cool, requiring an immense choreography of lighting and staging. Opening night often has a few tiny bugs technically (a few spotlight issues, mic issues), but these were quickly fixed early on – an amazing achievement for such complicated staging.

A great cast and chorus made the singing of tough music look easy. The chorus opened the show by telling us to “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” voice by voice, then all joining in. They didn’t get individual bows at the end as they are not “named” characters, which seemed a shame as some of the choristers were featured more than once.

David Pittsinger portrayed the title character superbly. You could hear every word, every inflection, every emotion in his deep, round, resonant voice, including amazing high notes that just kept going up and up and would have been out of range for most bass-baritones. His ability to emote vocally was beautiful. I found his acting a bit stilted though. I wasn’t sure if his oddly unnatural looking makeup and his stiff movements were a conscious choice on his part, directed that way, or just his style. I wanted his body to match his mellifluous and expressive voice more. I know the text of Sweeney is “his skin was pale and his eye was odd,” but the makeup stood out in its staginess too much for my taste.

Susanna Mars, as I said, is a beast. That’s a good thing, in case you misunderstand. Her role, Mrs. Lovett, could easily be a caricature of a tweaky woman. No. I think Mars fleshed her out (oh, the puns, the puns!) her role the best of any play or opera I have ever seen. She sang, she moved, she spoke, she WAS Mrs. Lovett, a totally likable and scary woman of business and sociopathy. Who needs cats when you can have a real meat pie of Priest? So funny, but then would turn on a dime and be tender with Toby (Steven Brennfleck) or Sweeney. She used the full palette of colors in her voice, screeching one moment and dark and warm the next. Her interplay with Toby in “Not While I’m Around” was mesmerizing. You could have heard a pin drop in the house at the end.

So we’ve heard of the two villains, what about the good guys?

Baritone Alexander Elliott as the sailor Anthony had me swooning and gave me chills of the delightful kind. He fit the role well physically, even more so with his gorgeous voice, but he was not just a one dimensional hero. He tore up the song “Johanna,” singing of his love for Johanna, portrayed by Katrina Galka. He began tenderly, sweet, heady and with beautiful low notes as well, despite Sondheim’s throwing in some very dissonant, creepy chords under the lovely melody. On the return of the refrain, Anthony’s determination and volume heightened to raise the hair on your arms, because you believed HE believed he could win, not in a sappy “everything will turn out” way, but because he was ready to fight for his love in a very dark world.

Galka’s Johanna was somewhat hampered by the microphones being a little low for the female leads in the first half. Galka’s lighter voice has a faster and wider vibrato than is easily heard in the Keller Auditorium. Unlike a straight opera, this show was mic’d, and the levels on the female voices and Toby were at times not optimal. After intermission the sound balance improved.

Anne Allgood played and sang the role of The Beggar Woman clearly and well. Like the turning central portion of the stage, parlor/barbershop/pie house, her role was pivotal and was well executed.

Super-pervy Judge Turpin (Kevin Burdette ) successfully creeped me out completely during the self-flagellation scene. I’m not sure that I needed to see an orgasm on stage while he lusts after his ward Johanna, but Burdette played an amoral abuser of self and others brilliantly. His voice and demeanor in the role fit it excellently – looking good on the outside, completely corrupt on the inside, leaking out over all, including his henchman, The Beadle, sung by tenor Marcus Shelton. High notes? Yes, Shelton has them! Holy cats, slightly whiny and piercing just like The Beadle should sound. Along with the ever-present supercilious smile, greasy and threatening alongside the darker Judge – that was a great pairing!

I found it a bit hard to hear Tobias (Toby), played by Steven Brennfleck, in the first half, but after intermission his mic levels were adjusted, revealing a sweet and light voice that was perfect for Toby, but I thought he was best at the end after he’s lost his mind: more vocal intensity and truer to his instrument and more naturally acted. It is not easy to do “insane” naturally, but Brennfleck did well.

The final take away for me, after reflecting on individuals and separate components of Sweeney Todd: The ensemble singing and acting was first class. I’ve sung Verdi ensembles and they are considered the most difficult. I’d say Sweeney is up there in difficulty in regards complexity and musical challenge

The seemingly effortless interplay between the characters made me less conscious of the fact that I was watching a production but rather entering a world – a fascinating and harsh world with really challenging music to sing – all the while striving to be clear with the text yet conveying the emotion. The entire Portland Opera production – scenery, costumes, lighting, music, stage direction, singing, and acting – were all on an even playing field, and that made us believe their reality as a whole.
Nan Knight Haemer is a professional singer and voice teacher.

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