Left: Greer Grimsley (Sweeney Todd), Right: Luretta Bybee (Mrs. Lovett)
“The worst pies in London… the worst pies in London” and “I feel you, Johanna-aaa…” have been replaying on loop in my head since I saw Sweeney Todd on Saturday. These two songs (“The Worst Pies in London” and “Johanna”) are just two of the many great pieces in Sondheim’s hit musical. From its premiere in 1979, Sweeney Todd has not only been a favourite among musical theatre companies, but has found its way into the operatic repertoire.
Vancouver Opera’s production, the last of the 2014-2015 season, was creatively staged with an innovative set design. Instead of setting the musical in Victorian times, Director Kim Collier decided that it would be appropriate to set Sweeney Todd in modern times, to show “one of the largest schisms between the haves and have-nots.” The performance was given a brilliant and dramatic introduction by Conductor Jonathan Darlington, who performed the “Organ Prelude” in costume at an onstage organ.
The orchestra was unusually positioned on the stage, with the performers acting around and above the orchestra on a moving balcony. In the second half, the front of the stage lowered as the “basement” of Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop. Todd’s infamous mechanical barber’s chair was very cleverly incorporated into the set with a slide that allowed the barber’s victims to be moved efficiently to the basement. While I first anticipated that the orchestra might be distracting, they were well positioned as to not detract from the action.
As I mentioned in my last review of Die Fledermaus, I am little bit more of a traditionalist when it comes to my operatic tastes. However, in this case, I must admit that the set and staging complemented the violent and gritty drama. Although one thing that confused me a little was the variation in the costumes and the time periods that they were supposed to represent – there was a blend of styles from 19th century Victorian clothing to present day street clothes, but nonetheless, that did not distract from an overall excellent musical performance.
Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley gave a very dark portrayal of the title role with excellent command of his extremely powerful voice. However, I must say that it was his real-life wife, mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee, who stole the show as the quirky Mrs. Lovett in her VO debut. Her voice was the perfect mix of operatic and broadway style, and she enthralled the audience with her great sense of humour and perfect accent. There was exceptional chemistry between her and Grimsley, and their duet, “A Little Priest,” brought the first act to a stirring close.
The performance also featured several of Vancouver Opera’s young artists, notably tenor Rocco Rupolo and soprano Caitlin Wood as the lovers Anthony and Johanna. Their lyrical voices provided a necessary contrast to Sondheim’s grippingly eerie score. Tenor Pascal Charbonneau gave a memorable and very believable performance as the young Tobias “Toby” Ragg, his soaring voice blending harmoniously with the orchestra, particularly in “Not While I’m Around.”
Vancouver Opera’s 2015-2016 season begins this fall and features two beloved Italian operas – Rigoletto and Madama Butterfly, as well as the Canadian premiere of Dark Sisters and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. For more information and season tickets, visit www.vancouveropera.ca or call: 604-683-0222.
All Photos by Tim Matheson