Monday, May 11, 2015
Last Monday, we attended the Houston Grand Opera Patrons Recital and saw Nathan Gunn, accompanied by Julie Jordan-Gunn, singing a wide variety of pieces, from operatic staples such as the Toreador song from Carmen and Papageno's suicide aria from The Magic Flute (spoiler alert: it has a happy ending) to western ballads and folk music, including "Home on the Range" and "Shenandoah". It was especially fun for us to see Nathan Gunn in such a small venue, because we were about to see him in the title role of HGO's Sweeney Todd later in the same week.
I'm happy to say that this was another case when I was unsure whether I would like a production but then was blown away; it happened earlier this season with Otello and it happened again on Friday with Sweeney Todd. I haven't been overly enthusiastic about HGO's recent trend of adding one or two shows each season that seem to be musical theater rather than opera; I rarely go to TUTS (Houston's Theatre Under the Stars, i.e. traveling Broadway shows) and that's by choice. I didn't care for HGO's Show Boat last season, in part because it took what I think of as a formula musical and added the operatic style, which seemed unnatural in that context. But regardless of my personal taste, I understand why HGO chooses some of these shows, and I think it's smart on their part. These productions have the potential to bring in folks who don't normally attend the opera, and I'm sure it's also fun for long-time opera buffs who are also nostalgic for classic musical theater.
Unlike with Show Boat, I had at least seen the movie Sweeney Todd and so I knew it wasn't precisely a formula musical. The movie wasn't brilliant, in part because much of the casting had little to do with musical ability, but at least the story was interesting. So I thought this production would probably be okay as long as it didn't try to shoehorn too much "opera" where it didn't belong. It turns out I needn't have worried. Not only did it have what felt like the right amount of opera (Johanna's solos were the most formally operatic), the story was even less formula than I remembered from the movie, and far more engaging when seen live.
(I tried to find information, by the way, on whether Sweeney Todd is considered a musical or an opera, and was amused to find this piece by Michael Dale addressing that very question rather humorously.)
For anyone not familiar with this story, it first (according to Wikipedia) appeared as a serial penny dreadful in the 1840s, and has evolved over the last 170 years into various forms, many of them performance-oriented. Sweeney Todd is a former barber, bitter after years of wrongful incarceration in Australia. He has returned to London intent on revenge against the corrupt judge who sent him there to get him out of the way, because the judge coveted Todd's young and beautiful wife. Back in Fleet Street, Todd joins forces with Mrs. Lovett, a woman who runs a failing meat pie establishment and who has a brainstorm about how to deal with a body that Sweeney Todd has need to dispose of....
In spite of the subject manner, HGO's production refrains from going over-the-top, whereas the movie version, created by Tim Burton, takes place in Burton's signature Over-the-Top Land. I don't mind visiting Burton's imagination sometimes, but in this case, the only aspect I liked better in the movie version was that Toby was cast as a quite young boy instead of a young man. I felt that made Mrs. Lovett's maternal attitude towards him more believable and more poignant. I also preferred having a "young boy voice" advertising first Pirelli's haircuts and later Mrs. Lovett's amazing meat pies, although that is not the fault of tenor Nicholas Phan, who played Toby in this live version.
As for HGO's production, I particularly loved several individual performances. Nathan Gunn is not only the perfect baritone for the part, he's the perfect showman: voice, expression, body language.... The entire time I watched him, I marveled at his precision and control. Susan Bullock played Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd's somewhat bloodthirsty accomplice. And hey, here's another clue to that opera versus musical question: her bio in the program says that "Her HGO performance as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd represents her first foray into musical theater." At least she, then, considers this musical theater rather than opera. In any case, she certainly was a comedic natural in the role, and the audience ate up her (possibly ad-libbed?) humming of The Ride of the Valkyries as she wearily ascended the steps up to Sweeney Todd's barber shop above her own establishment.
I should also mention the set and costume design, by Tanya McCallin. Although small parts moved around now and again, this was essentially one set piece, used extremely efficiently. I'd wondered if they would use some kind of sliding chute to transport Mr. Todd's victims to Mrs. Lovett's ovens, and indeed they did. I also thought the "blood" effects were just at the right level -- clearly visible from the furthest seat in the house, but none of the excessive spurting that Tim Burton loves any excuse to use.
On a side note, while I love our particular ticket series for the opera (called "mostly Fridays"), it does come near the end of each run, and I regret that by the time I get to see a production and post a review, it's usually too late to urge other people to go see it. I wish I could tell everyone to go see HGO's Sweeney Todd. If you ever get the chance in the future, don't miss it.
Click here for a detailed review and some background about this production by Opera Warhorses.
[Top photo: Susan Bullock as Mrs. Lovett and Nathan Gunn as Sweeney Todd. Photo property of Houston Grand Opera. Bottom photo: Megan Samarin as Johanna and Morgan Pearse as Anthony. Photo from Megan Samarin's Twitter feed].