Vancouver Opera Season 2014-2015 ended with Stephen Sondheim´s Sweeney Todd, led by the bass-baritone Greer Grimsley in the role of the wrongdoer The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the mezzosoprano Luretta Bybee as his instigator, the determined pie maker Mrs. Lovett.
Jonathan Darlington, once more demonstrated his talent, conducted the Vancouver Opera Orchestra with music that was attentive and stirring. Unfortunately, sometimes the vocal sound competed with the orchestra due the microphones, hampering the result.
Singing the title role, Greer Grimsley gave a solid interpretation. His voice is powerful and dark, striking. As an expert in operatic Wagnerian roles, the American knows how to express dignity and refinement while singing. Occasionally his technique seemed a bit unpolished, lacking the richness available to his voice. He did achieve an extra point of emotion, however, using a technique, similar to that of the famous German tenor Jonas Kaufmann.
The soprano Luretta Bybee portrays a brave Mrs. Lovett. Amid the decadence of London and lack of meat for her pies (a metaphor of her lack of love and empathy) she is the vortex of the brutal spiral of blood and violence. The role demands a good singer, but a better actress. Mrs Bybee was believable and amusing and she received the well-deserved applause of the audience at the Queen Elisabeth Theatre.
Noteworthy was the delicate interpretation of Johanna Barker by Caitlin Wood, with a clear and appealing voice. Karen Ydenberg was perfect as the Beggar Woman whilst Doug MacNaughton excelled as the surly Judge Turpin. The Canadian tenor Pascal Charbonneau was a very good young and naïve Tobias Ragg, despite singing a bit uncontrolled.
Scenic designer Robert Gardiner offered a set with passing allusions to London and combined contemporary with classic costumes. With all the orchestra on stage, the barber shop was installed on a rotating bridge deck, which was sometimes a bit disruptive. However, the thoughtful and simple lighting and the effective use of the chorus as a scenic resource resulted in a well-balanced and solid show. Gardiner included as well some veiled criticisms to the consumer society and portrayed the evil couple Todd-Levitt as victims of their unfortunate fate (following the idea of Sondheim). At the end, law and morals gave way to the deeper and more powerful feelings of love and revenge.
Despite of the irony of Stephen Sondheim, Sweeny Todd is not a funny musical. All the characters try to find the way to escape from a reality which is always adverse. But they always fail, and make the wrong choice toward madness and despair. Still, the music suggests there is an ounce of hope amid destruction. Maybe even love?
Carlos Javier Lopez