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
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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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