Magazine article The Spectator

Musical Nonsense

Magazine article The Spectator

Musical Nonsense

Article excerpt

Sweeney Todd Royal Festival Hall

Tosca Royal Opera House

Le Nozze di Figaro

Royal College of Music

My first visit to the made-over Royal Festival Hall was to see a semi-staged production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

It wasn't an artistic success, as could be judged from the extravagantly genial response of the audience, roaring with laughter that had no trace of nervousness, and applauding one number after another.

Sweeney is a failure if it doesn't alarm you and also lead you to empathise with Sweeney even in the act of slitting throats.

At the Festival Hall we had merely another show, and the confused and irritating article in the programme, as to whether it's an opera or a musical, was rendered redundant by the shallow entertainment it was allegedly introducing, which never rose to the level where such a question was worth thinking about.

Amplification is, I suppose, inevitable in a hall this size, with so many performers with tiny voices -- though it meant that the great Bryn Terfel, in the title role, was almost reduced to their level. Considering how many shows are amplified, and how long it's been going on, you might expect it to have become reasonably satisfactory by now, but it is almost always wretched. For me its worst feature, surely surmountable, is the unlocatability of the sound source -- everything seems to be coming from nowhere in particular. Then there is the distortion, so that only a small proportion of the words are intelligible, while the dynamics are flattened out, making musical nonsense. And the qualities of individual voices, where they are worth attending to, are similarly obliterated.

Plenty of pieces thrive on semi-staging, but anyone should realise that Sweeney isn't one of them. It needs total seriousness of presentation, and the possibility of complete absorption by the audience, such as I have only experienced in Opera North's production by David McVicar, for which I forgive him a great deal (but by no means everything). Without that, the weaknesses in the plot and in the characterisation, of the young lovers for instance, become all too plain. The long duet which Sweeney and Mrs Lovett share at the end of Act I is irredeemable: smart and witty, but right out of character for both of them. Not much else is so opportunistic, but it is fragile. And things I thought couldn't go wrong did: the scene in which Sweeney is about to cut Judge Turpin's throat, but is prevented by Anthony's bumbling entrance, is agonising -- but here it wasn't because there had been no build-up of tension. …

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