Sweeney Todd

Dark and delightful.

NZ Opera’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street took me by surprise. It’s the fifth opera I have watched to date, the first one I have seen presented in English, and the first that thrilled me from start to finish.

When we settled into our plush seats, my eyes saw a simple set – but when the music and show began, I felt a curious sensation; I was no longer on land, but at sea. The luring music of the orchestra and chorus were as rippling waves in a dangerous ocean, surging with secrets that begged to be told. In the opening scene, I saw not a costumed cast, but living ghosts rising from the ground …

Many things come together to make the show what it is. Those accustomed to NZ Opera’s high standards will expect nothing less, and I am certainly once again impressed. Costumes, make-up and the simple but convincing set leave little need for imagination to make the world of Sweeney Todd feel too real for comfort.

As the program writely says – it is indeed “a journey from darkness to illuminated darkness”, brilliantly achieved through the use of contrast. One never escapes darkness throughout the night, but if black is a colour, one sees its many tones and shades, and thus revels in its startling beauty.

Steven Sondheim’s clever lyrics are a pure delight to take in, as is Johanna’s irresistible birdsong (Amelia Barry). The lively Mrs Lovett has me hooked from the time she provides a hearty, flour-dusted whiff of the “worst pies in London” (Antoinette Halloran). Todd’s unrelenting cold hands bring necessary chills and truly, I cannot imagine a better rendition of his role (Teddy Tahu Rhodes).

Darkness builds like a castle of waves as the show progresses – when Tobias goes through the horror of finding a fingernail and other human identifiers in his pie, I am right there with him in his terrible pit of revulsion. Cascading sound and the effective use of stage lights render me hot and cold at once, and I find myself drawing my scarf closer around my body; needing, somehow, a certain reassurance even as I revel in the masterful delivery of this violent tale.

I won’t be hungry for pie for a while, but I am certainly looking forward to my next serving of opera / theatre.

Verdict: An impressive performance by way of dark intrigue topped with a golden crust of spine-tingling humour and exemplary design. A feast which scares and beckons … by all means have your dinner, but leave some room for pie!

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – showing till 24 September 2016 at the Civic Theatre in Auckland. Don’t miss it.

See NZ Opera website for dates and times for Wellington and Christchurch shows.

This post has also been published on NZ Entertainment Podcast.

Images © David Rowland

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