The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s first-ever “Sweeney Todd” excels in singing and stage work. It also draws striking parallels between Victorian England and contemporary America. The last performance is today at 2:30. | February 8, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Symphony Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He has been named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website here (www.disso.org).

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest preview review of this weekend’s three performances of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” by the Madison Opera in the Capitol Theater in the Overture Center.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below) with production photos by James Gill:

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 masterpiece of musical theater tells the gruesome legend of Benjamin Barker, now Sweeney Todd, returned to London after unjust imprisonment to take revenge on the judge who wronged him and stole his daughter. With his baker accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, he slaughters unsuspecting Londoners and has their bodies baked into meat pies.

The Madison Opera presents it for the first time this weekend in all its sonic splendor, with a larger orchestra than the typical Broadway band, placed on stage, plus a cast of powerful voices and gifted actors.

The new production, also the directorial debut of UW-Madison theater professor Norma Saldivar (below, in a photo from Madison Magazine), is a triumph of atmosphere. From haunting and evocative lighting (Hideaki Tsutsi) with flashes of red to accompany the many otherwise bloodless murders, to a versatile and visually striking Victorian-industrial set (Joseph Varga), the visual side was appropriately dramatic.

Norma Saldivar color

The stark soundscape that makes the piece so successful was the product of crisp, energetic playing from members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John DeMain, who is both the Music Director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Artistic Director of the Madison Opera.

The music featured a prominent organ part that was performed with dramatic flair by UW alumnus composer Scott Gendel and arresting singing from the Madison Opera Chorus that is directed by Anthony Cao. If the choral blocking was somewhat static, it lent additional emphasis to the jerky, mechanistic motions that were used sparingly, but to great effect.

Meredith Arwardy as Mrs. Lovett and Corey Crider as Sweeney Todd with crowd chorus James Gill

What sets this apart from the 2007 Hollywood film version directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp in the title role, or even from a typical Broadway production, is the singing — even if it was uncharacteristically amplified electronically in tis production.

Sondheim’s score treads the line between opera and musical theater, making unusually great demands on the vocalists. Madison Opera’s cast came through magnificently.

In the leads, Corey Crider (below, as Sweeney Todd) and Meredith Arwady (Mrs. Lovett) both excelled in their Madison Opera debuts.

Arwady’s comic instincts are superb — her duets with Crider (“A Little Priest” and “By the Sea”) were hysterical. (With regard to the former, I confess I have a soft spot for good puns.)

Crider’s powerful baritone modulated through tenderness, rage, bitterness, and insane glee with subtle precision, and he brought no small measure of dramatic flair to the role.

Corey Crider as Sweeney Todd   CR James Gill

The show has a cast full of tenors, all of whom excelled. Robert Goderich (Adolfo Pirelli) was hilariously over the top in both his character acting and the Italianate tenor writing, which he pulled off with aplomb, and Daniel Shirley’s smooth lyricism as Anthony Hope (bottom right, with Jeni Houser on far left and Michael Etzwiler in the middle) was especially lovely. Thomas Leighton’s solos stood out from the chorus for their particular beauty.

Seeney Todd  Jeni Houser as Johanna, Michael Etzwiler as Birdseller, Daniel Shirley as Anthony Hope GR James Gill

The young Joshua Sanders (below center), a company veteran despite his age, was outstanding in his first major role as Tobias Ragg. From his enthusiastic sales patter in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” to gentle tenderness in the show-stealing “Not While I’m Around” — heard sung by Neil Patrick Harris in a YouTube video at the bottom — to the deranged mania of the final scene, both his acting skill and immense vocal talent shone throughout the evening.

Sweeney Todd   Joshua Sanders as Tobias Ragg and Meredith Arwady as Mrs. Lovett CR James Gill

My attention Friday night was drawn to the social commentary in the show.

Sweeney Todd’s murderous frenzy is overlaid with a critique of the social order in Victorian London — not so distant from that of today: “The history of the world, my sweet/Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat” It is also not far from Bertolt Brecht‘s moralizing in “The Threepenny Opera,” which says “Even saintly folk will act like sinners/Until they’ve had their customary dinners.”

Through the same lens, we see Mrs. Lovett (played played by Meredith Arwady, below) in particular swayed by the social mobility brought on by newfound prosperity: her change of costume in the second act, coupled with fresh wallpaper and a brand-new harmonium in the parlor, suggest that once she becomes one of the ones “who gets to eat,” her priorities align more and more with the upper class she seemed to despise before.

Meredith Arwady

Whether you come for the social critique, the powerful music, the skillful acting, or if you just want a good Gothic thrill, this weekend’s “Sweeney Todd” will deliver.

It joins the long list of Madison Opera’s successes in recent seasons, and you might just consider catching the last show this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater.

 

 

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15 Comments »

  1. “revenge (n.): the action of hurting or harming someone in return for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands (OED)

    Sweeney Todd murders Judge Turpin for unjustly sentencing him to life in a penal colony. That’s revenge.”

    But that is NOT what you wrote in your review, is it? To refresh your memory you wrote this: “Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 masterpiece of musical theater tells the gruesome legend of Benjamin Barker, now Sweeney Todd, returned to London after unjust imprisonment to take revenge on the judge who wronged him and stole his daughter. With his baker accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, he slaughters unsuspecting Londoners and has their bodies baked into meat pies.”

    I questioned your use of the word revenge and actually provided the definition you later quoted. I asked you earlier how, “With his baker accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, he slaughters unsuspecting Londoners and has their bodies baked into meat pies” fits into revenge because that is mayhem, and carrying a grudge against society at large is not revenge. It is telling that you still have not answered that question (and your replies are as wordy as mine). This is “Death Wish” “revenge”; Charles Bronson’s justice. And by the way, lots of people are injured daily in life, in small ways and great ways, without killing someone else.

    What this really is all about is Hollywood/Madison Avenue hype attempting to fit, as you do, gross acts (which they know will sell tickets and make money) into something more intellectually palatable. That’s why Brecht, Brechtian and “like the Threepenny Opera” were used so much in campaigns/ads/advertorials to sell what really is a blood-fest without any redemption: to add something intellectually appealing (and perhaps sway some gullible reviewers) where very little beyond cartoon characters exist.

    You obviously do not understand either the traditional idea of tragedy or Macbeth or Brecht. Here is a good discussion of Macbeth and tragedy: http://macbethdelta2.weebly.com/macbeth-as-a-tragic-hero.html

    I will now leave you with your beloved Stephen Sondheim and your cartoon characters.

    Comment by fflambeau — February 9, 2015 @ 7:53 pm

    • Please get your own blog where you can feel free to insult Mr Utevsky, Mr Barker, and anyone else with whom you disagree.

      Comment by Steve Rankin — February 9, 2015 @ 9:01 pm

  2. To Mr. U. I’m sure you are a very able musician. On the other hand, you seem to be very imprecise with the English language. “Revenge” does not mean what you think it does and it is not the theme of Sweeney Todd, (something which you yourself seem to be now backing away from in your latest comment). Nor, can the word “tragedy” be applied to ST, accept in a slapdash, sloppy and unthinking way.

    You wrote: “In a sense, the comparison you briefly made to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is actually rather apt: while I do not pretend that “Sweeney Todd” is anywhere near the masterwork that “Macbeth” is, they are certainly both tragedies that exploit the grotesque and horrible to show the fall of the main figure.”

    Wrong. Take a look at any of the important works done on tragedy and you will almost uniformly find this definition (or something close to it). Tragedy is the story of a great person whose fall came about because of a defect in his persona. Examples: Macbeth, King Lear, and all of the other great Shakespearean characters. In no way could anyone construe Sweeney Todd as the subject of tragedy or accurately use that term to describe him. So, please sharpen up your use of the language. Look especially at AC Bradley’s work or most anyone discussing classical tragedy including Hegel, or more recently Harold Bloom. I grant you that the word tragedy is often misused on the street but mostly by the word deaf.

    And it is not only with long gone England that we are dealing with. Orson Welles, who was an expert on Shakespeare and on tragedy, made Citizen Kane as a kind of study of an American tragedy. Kane, for all of his faults, was a great man (he fell because of his ambition and his pig-headedness). Welles was not much concerned with the likes of Sweeney Todd. His (and Shakespeare’s) was the far more epic canvas. In short, your language is not precise nor accurate; I have no doubt that you have musical skills and talents. Precision is required in music and it is also required of those who If you want to write criticism.

    Comment by fflambeau — February 9, 2015 @ 1:10 am

    • revenge (n.): the action of hurting or harming someone in return for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands (OED)

      Sweeney Todd murders Judge Turpin for unjustly sentencing him to life in a penal colony. That’s revenge. I realize your lack of understanding of the piece may make this unclear, but that is not a fault of my language. It is the motive force around which the entire plot turns.

      As you ought to know, given your appearance of erudition, tragedy is not limited to the Greek model. Certainly its personages are no longer necessarily noble – that was already the case in the 19th century. As for this piece, by all means let us compare it to “Macbeth.” Despite Macbeth’s station, he is never shown as noble of character in the present. Any redeeming qualities he had are either long gone or cast aside early on – we must believe in the nobility Duncan speaks of, because it is never actually exhibited on stage.

      Sweeney Todd’s virtue is his love for his family, which persists even in his madness. His tragic flaw is that he is corruptible. His desire for revenge, which is initially portrayed as a pure thing, is made base by the filth and corruption of his environment, and he becomes unable to distinguish fully between the man who deserves death for his deeds and the ordinary people on the street. Again, compare Macbeth – his desire for power (and his wife’s persuasion) leads him to the murder of children, to the instigation of wars, and to kill the king he loves and serves.

      In the Classical model, Sweeney Todd is even marked by a point of anagnorisis – the moment of realization that accompanies a final reversal (peripety) – when he discovers that the beggar woman he has killed is in fact his wife, whom he thought dead. He is suddenly turned back on himself, realizing the enormity of his evil deeds and finding them empty of purpose with their object dead by his own hand. Aristotle thought this the mark of a truly great tragedy (c.f. Oedipus Rex).

      You are correct that precision is required in music, as it is in criticism. However, both also require concision – hence the omission of all of this from my review, which was and is not a treatise on Sondheim’s relationship with Classical tragedy or Epic Theater. It perhaps says more about you than about my writing that only a single reader was so offended by my passing reference to the political implications of this piece of music theater that you felt the need to publish an essay attempting to eviscerate a piece you know almost nothing about and did not bother to see.

      I think that about clears it up, no?

      Good day.
      Mikko Rankin Utevsky

      Comment by Mikko Utevsky — February 9, 2015 @ 10:10 am

  3. On Brecht and Weill’s “Mahogonny”:

    “Few operas elicit anger like Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s still-ferocious 1930 satire Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. And few times like the present seem so appropriate for the work’s coruscating attack on a culture of endless consumption, a world in which having no money is the most serious crime of all . . . . Its lessons are not just American ones: they bear repeating everywhere there is income inequality, austerity, deregulation or Black Friday sales. Highlighting its lessons makes the opera seem didactic, while Brecht and Weill’s essential masterpiece is anything but. It is as funny and as sad as it is furious, and packs its punch in a rich score . . . that transitions with devilish ease from chorale to fox trot. It is, in sum, a grand entertainment as well as a sobering mirror.”
    –New York Times, 2013

    “The work’s tunefully truculent critique of capitalist culture has lost none of its relevance–in fact . . . the opera’s subject matter may be more timely than ever. . . . Weill’s score is a remarkable balancing act that melds the ancient and modern, the classical and the popular, from Bach to cabaret, from Mahler to the foxtrot. The unity of its disunity is extraordinary.”
    –Boston Globe, 2008

    “The work is strong social satire and even stronger social medicine . . . . Weill takes what he needs musically from wherever he feels appropriate; Bach and the cabaret are equally useful for conveying the depths of the human condition and those to which we can sink . . . . Brecht’s text penetrates society’s ills like a drill into hard soil.”
    –Los Angeles Times, 2007

    “One of the masterpieces of the 20th-century lyric theater, with ironically sentimental music that with all its sweetness and bitterness will stay with you as long as you live . . . . The music is fantastic. Erotic, melodic, childlike and yet sinister, it has a musical innocence, and charms as potent and as poignant as poisoned chocolates . . . . It is beautiful, and lingers, lingers and lingers.”
    –New York Times, 1970

    NOTE: the LA Opera production and recording of this Brecht/Weill collaboration won 2 Grammy Awards in 2009; it has been performed by James Levine in NYC, by the Chicago Lyric Opera, at Covent Garden etc.

    Comment by fflambeau — February 8, 2015 @ 11:40 pm

  4. George, yes, “The Barber” is a great opera but it is a work horse, one that is sadly overplayed. I can understand that due to budget woes of opera companies because this is more or a less a guaranteed sell out.

    To their credit, the people around “Sweeney Todd” obviously wanted to do something different, something out of the mainstream, and that is to be applauded.

    My quibble (or Tiger bite) is that they chose the wrong, very inferior vehicle for it. So, yes, to something like Verdi’s “Macbeth” which is underperformed and tells a great story (Shakespeare’s but with a twist) and has music by a master, Verdi!

    Or, perhaps to educate Mr. U. and others like him who throw out the playwright’s name without knowing much about him, why not really perform Brecht and the “Three Penny Opera”? Great music and it would have much the same “modern” appeal that Todd has. Or, there’s Brecht’s “Mother Courage” (music by Paul Dessau); or, “The Good Person from Sezuan” (music by Stefan Wolpe and/or Paul Dessau) or “The Trial of Lucullus” (music by Roger Sessions); or for the lovers of Kurt Weill’s music, how about “Lindbergh’s Flight” (once performed by Stokowski and the Philly Orchestra, no less; music by Weill and Paul Hindemith).

    But here’s my top suggestion. There is another brilliant Brecht/Weill collaboration that is now almost completely forgotten which SHOULD be performed: “Aufsteig Und Fall Der Stadt Mahogonny” (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny”. Unlike The Threepenny Opera (a ballad opera) this was designed for performance in opera houses (Weill wrote the music for 30 or musicians). It is a brilliant expose of the laissez-faire society that predated and brought about the Great Depression. It also affirms Brecht’s belief that art should not just sell pleasurable emotions but serve the improvement and instruction of mankind. That is an idea that needs reaffirming.

    Comment by fflambeau — February 8, 2015 @ 10:50 pm

    • I do not normally take to the comment section to defend my own criticism, but since I am here assailed with pages of repetitive prose, I thought I might step in to clarify a few points which the anonymous “fflambeau” has mistaken.

      Madison Opera staged a fantastic production of Threepenny about four years ago – it was my introduction to Brecht’s work, along with a production of “Life of Galileo” for which I arranged music the year before. Unfortunately, Brecht is somewhat dumbed down in the Blitzstein translation they used; I find him much more pointed in the German, but the piece benefits enormously from the use of popular language, and besides, Blitzstein’s lyrics are eminently singable, if sometimes overly sanitized. The thrust of the text is still there.

      In making reference to Brecht in my review, I sought to highlight the critique of Victorian London in Sweeney Todd which, while hardly the main thrust of the show (unlike the often intolerably preachy Brecht, with whom I politically sympathize myself), is nevertheless an intriguing aspect brought out in the current production. Obviously this is not Epic Theater. Nowhere did I imply it was. It is entertainment. But it is entertainment with a social commentary embedded inside what is also good music and good fun. The set, with its factory windows; the steam-whistle that punctuates the score – these point toward a reading that credits the dehumanizing conditions of urban industrial England, particularly crippling poverty and corruption in the justice system (a major plot point in the show), for creating the monster that Sweeney Todd becomes.

      In a sense, the comparison you briefly made to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is actually rather apt: while I do not pretend that “Sweeney Todd” is anywhere near the masterwork that “Macbeth” is, they are certainly both tragedies that exploit the grotesque and horrible to show the fall of the main figure.

      Sweeney Todd was deeply wronged, and returns to kill the man who took his life from him. While he does eventually accomplish this goal, he is corrupted in the process and becomes a monstrous murderer, nearly as wicked as the man he seeks to destroy. (I say ‘nearly’ because a part of Judge Turpin’s evil comes from the position of power he occupies, both as a supposed officer of the law and as a wealthy individual. With both the capability and the responsibility to be a force for good, he instead works for greed and selfish desire. Todd, on the other hand, has nothing: a corrupt society bereft him of everything, even his family, and so his wickedness is unsurprising, as a consequence of the dire circumstances in which he lives. As in “Rigoletto” – “Se iniquo son, per cagion vostro è solo!” – “If I am wicked, it is only because you made me so!”)

      We could have a conversation about the role of popular theater in gently changing social values, and whether one can play to popular tastes (in this case, blood and violence) while also sending a moral message (the role of social inequity in crime and punishment, or how power corrupts), but I don’t get the impression you are particularly interested in that conversation, if given the choice between it and monologuing. So instead I’ll bid you good day, and suggest that you see the show next time. Support your local opera company, and all that.

      To recap:

      – Obviously this isn’t Brecht. That it seems to resemble one piece in one particular way is all I meant to imply, which everyone else seemed to understand.

      – Of course it’s revenge. If you saw the show you’d know that he goes astray in his initial endeavor, but gets there in the end (and is punished for his misdeeds at the hands of someone he wrongs – poetic justice, after a fashion).

      – I think you’ll find Sondheim is rather more popular than you believe him to be, and I would be unsurprised if his music proves to be as enduring as Weill’s, even if I would take the “Zuhälterballade” over “Worst Pies in London” any day myself.

      – And finally, try seeing the show before tearing it (or a well-intentioned reviewer) to pieces.

      Best wishes,
      Mikko Rankin Utevsky

      Comment by Mikko Utevsky — February 9, 2015 @ 12:02 am

  5. “fflambeau. I’m certain you would thoroughly enjoy Madison Opera’s next production – the classic comedy of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”. Truly a charming happy comedy that will lift your spirits!”

    Well, it has a truly great overture, and some wonderful music but it is a bit lightweight in many respects. It is Opera Buffa after all. AND, I think it is over performed. Why not, for those who love the blood (or bloodless in Madison) in Sweeney Todd, Verdi’s “Macbeth”? Unlike “The Barber” it is underperformed and although it is early Verdi it is still by one of the masters and has some beautiful choruses.

    Comment by fflambeau — February 8, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

  6. “Yes, there is violence but it is ultimately a condemnation of such violence and revenge because it spirals out of control and consumes everyone to some extent.” See my most recent comment where I discuss violence in the theater at length.

    The problem with the “revenge” in Sweeney Todd (using Mr. U’s wrong word for the subject) around which the violence is built, is that it is NOT revenge. Revenge, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “The action of hurting or harming someone in return for an injury or wrong suffered at their hands.” Sweeney Todd inflicts murder and mayhem mindlessly on society in general, not on the person who “wronged” him exclusively.

    And I take issue with you that the product does not glorify such action. Look at the lyrics: ““There’s a hole in the world/Like a great black pit/And it’s filled with people/Who are filled with shit/And the vermin of the world inhabit it …” Or these words sung by Todd: “No, we all deserve to die!/Even you, Mrs. Lovett,/Even I./Because the lives of the wicked should be/Made brief./For the rest of us, death/Will be a relief./We all deserve to die!” There’s nothing deep there. The same kind of mindless violence pervades the “Death Wish” Charles Bronson movies and hundreds of others of the same type produced by Hollywood for one reason: to make money.

    Comment by fflambeau — February 8, 2015 @ 9:15 pm

  7. “What about Sinclair Lewis’s novels, what about Nelson Algren’s books, what about the films of Tennessee William’s plays, what about films about racial segregation and violence in America. What about films about AIDS?”

    Please. You’d better reread and rethink those works. Those authors and playwrights obviously used violence, revenge, lust , disease etc. in their works (as did Shakespeare for instance) but in a far different way than in Sweeney Todd. Sinclair Lewis wanted to reform, to change society (as did B. Brecht by the way, more on that later). Movies on AIDS etc. attempted to do the same thing. They did not revel in blood and gore (which the movie has in bucket loads and which this production has sanitized) nor did they need fake simulation like the “bloodless” production you saw and applaud.

    Shakespeare uses witches, animals, ghosts, killings etc. to show something: tragedy (that is, the fall of a great person). In no way could Sweeney Todd be construed as a great figure or the central character in a tragedy.

    The great Alfred Hitchcock, who knew something about ambition, greed, rivalries and yes murder, realized early on that hinting at violence and letting the mind roam was far more effective than attempting to show a bloodbath on the screen. Exhibit A: the shower scene in Psycho.

    Now let me turn to Brecht, who you hint at and Mr. U. directly referred to in his review and whom neither of you understand at all. Brecht would be appalled by such a production, for various reasons.

    1) he was didactic; he wanted to show audiences problems (like Sinclair Lewis) and stimulate them to think about ways of resolving them (like Lewis and T. Williams). Brecht, for instance, did not want his audience “to feel emotions” (just the opposite of the mayhem/emotion strewn plot in this “opera”), they should be made to think.” The quotation is from one of the top scholars on Brecht, Martin Esslin, author of “Brecht, The man and His Work”. He goes on to say that “the Brechtian stage approximates the lecture hall , to which audiences come in the expectation that they will be informed…”

    Can you honestly say that is the main purpose of this production which ranges the gamut of emotions from A to B: from the sentimental to the violent?

    2) Brecht wanted to transform a society that he saw as dead and moribund around him (Germany between the two wars) and bring about a new and better society. As Martin Esslin has written about Brecht Brecht “was convinced that the theatre must become a tool of social engineering, a laboratory of social change.” In fact, he was a communist (but not a Stalinist or an Walter Ulbrecht man). That element of social transformation and change that is central to Brecht is completely missing in this story, which really is one of mayhem and gratuitous violence, much like a Charles Bronson movie.

    3) Unlike you, and the production you have written about, he believed that music and lighting had a specific role in the theater (and yes, he was a theater director in East Berlin in addition to being a playwright). With regard to lighting, he wanted bright light at all times (because lighting was not the main focus for him, it was informing the audience and getting them to think and act). Here is one of the top scholars on Brecht and lighting: “Brecht was against the use of lighting effects to create atmosphere and mood.” That is from Martin Esslin here are Brecht’s own words in translation: “Give us light on the stage, lighting engineer…nebulous twilight lulls to sleep. … Let them (the audience) dream in blazing clarity” is what Brecht himself wrote. How different from the “mood” lighting of a Tim Burton (where lighting is paramount almost) or this production.

    4) Now, let’s turn to the music. Here again is Martin Esslin on the role of music in Brecht: “…musical numbers are no longer smuggled in at the point when the emotional charge of a scene rises to a climax and speech merges into song, but are introduced as entirely distinct ingredients of the play, which interrupt its flow, break the illusion, and thereby render the action “strange”. And within the musical numbers themselves the music does not merely express the mood of the words; it often stands in contradiction to them, comments o n them, or reveals the falsity of the sentiments they express.”

    Is that what you heard in this production? Nope, you heard some maudlin Broadway type numbers which were fit into the action in the same way that music is in such numbers or in Hollywood movies.

    What you heard was shlock music set to schlock lyrics in a very traditional, Broadway musical way way. Please do not confuse that with Brechtian theater.

    I was not going to comment on the virtues (or perhaps better put, the lack of them of the music and lyrics for this production) but I believe this issue must be raised especially after the overblown statements made about their “wonder”. Let’s take a look at the video clip attached to the review (since it was regarded as a “highlight”) of “Not While I’m Around”. The words in part go:

    “No one’s gonna hurt you,
    No one’s gonna dare.
    Others can desert you,
    Not to worry, whistle, I’ll be there.”

    To me, that has all the power of an essay by a 6th grader (to whom the movie, at any rate, appealed!).

    Or how about these very commonplace/trite ones: “There was a barber and his wife,/And she was beautiful./A foolish barber and his wife./ She was his reason and his life,/And she was beautiful”) and these anti-social ones (“There’s a hole in the world/Like a great black pit/And it’s filled with people/Who are filled with shit/And the vermin of the world inhabit it …”). That’s not exactly Brechtian or even Oscar Hammerstein-like, is it?

    The soundtrack for the movie (and the songs of Sondheim for this “opera”) have not exactly set the world on fire, by the way. Kurt Weill’s music has lived on for almost a century; I doubt the same will be said of this monstrosity.

    What are the aims/concerns of this musical, I ask? They clearly are not didactic or transformative. They clearly are not revenge, which Mr. U wrongly said the plot rotates around (mindless mayhem aimed at the public at large is not “revenge”). Love? Where are we shown Sweeney Todd’s love for his wife (mindless mayhem directed at society is not “love”)? Nor does Todd seem to be moved for love of his daughter, who appears more of a cartoonish afterthought (just like the entire production). Pure “entertainment”? That seems about it, if entertainment is defined as mindless violence. As one reviewer presciently said of the movie: “The spectator feels that the orgy of bloodletting is the line of least resistance for filmmakers who lack a strong sense of where their work should go. …Too often in the present work, the audience is invited to laugh at the most degrading aspects of murder.”

    That is not the case in Shakespeare, for instance, which I have previously pointed out is also bloody. For a great dramatist like him, he used violence for a purpose; that is completely missing in this kind of production.

    Again, contrast this with Brecht’s (and Weill’s) Threepenny Opera which like much of Brecht is a satire and a scathing critique of bourgeoisie law and morality. What Brecht, Weill and Elizabeth Hauptmanm (who wrote much of the work) dwell on is the irrationality of the economic life which underpins the characters in their world. The Brechtian sweep is completely missing or underdeveloped in Sweeney Todd, which like many twisted movies from Hollywood such as the Bronson series, dwell on murder and mayhem for their sake alone. Additionally, Kurt Weill’s music is sublime, it fused then modern music with the new jazz and today still shines. Can the same be said for Sondheim’s tripe?

    So yes, perhaps this production has great singers, performers, musicians etc. But to what purpose? Could not these talents have been better used in a far better vehicle. Or, have we devolved, like the Hollywood business that has spawned Charles Bronson and American Sniper, into a society that relishes mindless violence and gore all for the purpose of selling tickets and making vast pots of money?

    4) I conclude on the subject of violence and gore. Even the violence in Brecht has a purpose. Yes, Brecht like Shakespeare, T. Williams, Orson Welles and other greats, used violence BUT FOR A PURPOSE, a point you entirely miss in your comment.

    In Brecht’s “St. Joan of the Stockyards”, for instance, the mighty canned meat king, Pierpont Mauler, actually sells minced meat for meatloaves made from careless workers who have fallen into his machines. Contrast that ( echoes of Sweeney Todd?) with Todd; in Brecht, this is not used just to shock the audience. It is to inform them of the evils of a capitalist system gone wrong. To force them to think and hopefully to take action. Brecht loathed an economic system that was so brutal that it ate its own; is that kind of satire anywhere found in S. Todd? There is no such social commentary (or it is pitifully underdeveloped) in Todd whereas it is pivotal to Brecht, and to the other ‘greats’ I have mentioned. So in sum, why waste talent and time on such an inferior vessel?

    Comment by fflambeau — February 8, 2015 @ 9:03 pm

  8. I agree it is an exceptional show and such wonderful singing and atmosphere throughout! Definitely catch the matinee today (Sunday Feb. 8)
    Also curious if Madison Opera will produce more music scale in the future? They certainly did an incredible job with this show (and can produce professionally compared to the other companies in town)! Hopefully look forward to more, besides their great opera works!
    A slight correction: the chorus is the Madison Opera Chorus (not symphony).

    Comment by Paul Anthony — February 8, 2015 @ 11:41 am

  9. Of course the story is twisted, it mangles our collective humanity as badly as the social conditions of Victorian London did. Which is precisely the point.
    To make Art out of dirt, mud, and violence is a much more difficult and problematic task than a love story or a plain political thriller.
    Yet, Love and Politics are precisely what motivates the characters in both the opera.musical and the “penny dreadfull” it is based on.
    There is no gore whatsoever in that production. Sat and watched the entire thing from the second row of the balcony. Even the one gunshot that is staged did not happen on cue!
    Is there shock? Not if you know what you are buying a ticket for. This show is over 25 years old, and no one who would spend 100 USD for a seat is unaware of the subject matter at this juncture.
    What about Sinclair Lewis’s novels, what about Nelson Algren’s books, what about the films of Tennessee William’s plays, what about films about racial segregation and violence in America. What about films about AIDS? Every social condition is right and proper grist for an artist who is equal to the challenge of drawing both attention and sympathy for a just but unpopular or unappealing cause. Not cannibalism, but social justice and equal treatment under the law.
    The music is sublime, the bad guys are bad, the good guys are both over the top and their own worst enemies, and the citizens are clueless all around. No one comes off as innocent in this libretto except Johanna and Anthony. She shoots her jailer, because her innocent sailor boyfriend cannot bear to pull the trigger. He does nothing but romantically pursue her and generally interrupts Sweeney at precisely the wrong moments, saving a few lives.
    I thought the sound reinforcement was so wonderfully natural and hereby commend Buzz Kemper for his work. Toby’s character had so much vocal nuance in his No One’s Gonna Harm You aria that was enabled for audibility by the body mics. There were duets sung by actors on opposite sides of the stage that would have been much more musically difficult without the sound system.
    At one point, in the duet between Anthony and Sweeney, Sweeney is singing the major third of a chord in the middle register. Then Anthony comes in with the 4th of that same chord, a MINOR 9th above, a VERY difficult vocal maneuver. To top it off, he does Not resolve down to a unison on the third, but rises to the 5th of the chord above. That moment was so wonderful because of how the voices were subliminally and naturalistically amplified.
    MBB

    Comment by 88melter — February 8, 2015 @ 10:53 am

  10. I’m sure that Mr. Utevsky is correct and that this is a wonderful performance with great singing and worthy music. My problem is with the theme and its seemingly gratuitous emphasis on violence. From Mr. U: “(Sweeney Todd deals with) revenge on the judge who wronged him and stole his daughter. With his baker accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, he slaughters unsuspecting Londoners and has their bodies baked into meat pies.” How exactly is killing “unsuspecting Londoners”, cutting up their bodies and then cannibalizing them doing that? And is any of this in any way, shape or form something that we should be encouraging (I confess I am a Buddhist and I find this whole idea abhorrent)?

    There was another story in the local media talking about how the razors used in the production are so authentic looking that a cast member wondered if it was safe to use them. Is that what opera and great music has come to?

    Again, I’m not questioning the worth of this performance and perhaps I’m old fashioned; I had the same problem with the movie and actually stopped watching a Johnny Depp DVD of it after about 5 minutes. Sorry, but in my opinion, there are far more worthy stories (and better music) to occupy oneself with. There is something twisted about this story; to me, it is like watching a Charles Bronson “Death Wish” movie where Bronson goes out to kill, maim, or inflict maximum pain on “bad guys” by running a muck (the evildoers may or may not have been involved in harming someone he loved in the past, it doesn’t seem to matter). What really is the attraction in this kind of mindless gore? And is great music (and sets and lighting) the proper accompaniment for this kind of thing?

    As a country, we’ve been involved in over 200 military “episodes” since 1960. Why play into the shock and gore theme?

    Comment by fflambeau — February 8, 2015 @ 4:23 am

    • fflambeau. I understand your concerns but I think you have done yourself a disservice by leaping to a false conclusion about the play. Yes, there is violence but it is ultimately a condemnation of such violence and revenge because it spirals out of control and consumes everyone to some extent. Much as it often does in real life. We see innocents become mad because of this horror and a recurring theme of good vs. evil, and, yes, evil vs. evil. I doubt if this story was intended to become a lesson to us all but if you get past the humor, fantastic set, superb orchestra, beautiful singing, and wonderful acting, you find a compelling story of that struggle. As far as the Johnny Depp version goes, throw it in the trash.

      Comment by Tom Stone — February 8, 2015 @ 11:16 am

      • fflambeau. I’m certain you would thoroughly enjoy Madison Opera’s next production – the classic comedy of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”. Truly a charming happy comedy that will lift your spirits!

        Comment by George — February 8, 2015 @ 5:52 pm


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