I don’t get to the opera often enough, but whenever I go, I go in style. I’m glad to say that due to circumstances beyond my control, a favorite aunt has a box at the Metropolitan Opera, and I must admit that a box is the way to go.
Mind you, we’ll all go in a box one fine day. But not in one with an anteroom for your overcoat. This is the thing, though: The opera begins, and there I sit in my velvet chair thinking this is such a treat . This is the life! And I haven’t a clue what’s going on.
I sort of know the plot, but I never read the translation flashing by on the supertitles. It’s like being plugged into Bloomberg News. It’s peculiar of me, perhaps, but I don’t want to read when I go to the opera. I want to feel the pure, monumental sound that transmits itself miraculously to thousands of people in the vast, lunatic auditorium. You can’t put it into words, exactly.
Which brings me, quite merrily, to the latest revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the New York City Opera. I’m sorry to say that not having a box there, I had to sit among the bejeweled riff-raff in the orchestra section during its gala opening. It’s not what I’m used to. But, to my surprise, the first thing I noticed was the prominent supertitle screen framing the stage itself. Why would they need a translation when they’re performing in English?
Mr. Sondheim’s famously creepy Sweeney first opened at the Uris Theater (now the Gershwin) on Broadway in 1979, and it’s one of the finest musicals he’s created. But, though it won a sackful of Tony Awards, a Broadway musical about cannibalism wasn’t for everyone. That’s how it became an opera. It became a popular minority art , first produced at City Opera in 1984.
It always had Grand Opera pretensions. The director, Hal Prince, and his designer, Eugene Lee, anxious to fill the Gershwin’s cavernous stage on Broadway, transplanted an abandoned Rhode Island iron foundry into the theater as the basis of its industrial set. Sweeney takes place in the shadowy London of the Industrial Age, and Mr. Prince-a self-conscious Brechtian moralist-wanted to create a stage picture of brutal, class-ridden England, not to mention Exploited Soulless Man.
But isn’t Sweeney Todd essentially an entertaining penny dreadful about a cannibal whose victims become Mrs. Lovett’s tasty meat pies? Brecht would have been pleased with Mr. Sondheim’s lyric, “The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” But the hybrid of Threepenny Opera and Grand Guignol never struck me as a perfect partnership. Mr. Prince’s dominating set and bloated social message appear at odds with Mr. Sondheim’s farcical melodrama or gothic romance of the demon barber of Fleet Street.
The composer’s score is a clever, loving homage, not to Brecht and Kurt Weill, but to Bernard Herrmann of spooky Alfred Hitchcock fame. Mr. Sondheim has also acknowledged drawing on a wealth of church music for even bigger gothic effect (including the medieval Dies Irae ). Then again, the original inspiration of the show was a Sweeney written by the Liverpudlian playwright, Christopher Bond, for Joan Littlewood’s famously renegade little theater in London’s East End. Now, if there’s one thing the great director Littlewood emphasized, it was theatrical intimacy and fun -the equivalent of a Cockney knees-up in a pub, or a deliciously gory celebration of murderous Sweeney and human meat pies.
Alas, the City Opera production is neither fish nor foul. For one surprising thing, it now looks skimpy on its vast stage. They’ve re-created only parts of the original set-losing the iron foundry that was intended to fill the big Gershwin stage in the first place. The production is miked, like any Broadway musical. But what happened to the purity of opera’s voice?
We’ve the luxury of the huge chorus and orchestra. Then again, the canyon-sized orchestra pit itself distances us further from the action. Sondheimeans claim that Susan H. Schulman’s picture-book production of Sweeney 14 years ago at Circle in the Square, with only a five-member chorus, was a revelation. (It was so pared down, it became known as Teeny Todd .) The sheer size of an opera house makes its own impossible demands. Hence the supertitles at the City Opera’s Sweeney , which translated the lyrics from English to … English.
In other Pythonesque words, the cast-stretching the vowels to make the biggest sound-couldn’t make themselves clearly understood. In the usual way, that would be fine with me; I don’t want to be disconnected even further from the stage by having to glance up at a screen to read the lyrics. But, as Bernard Holland points out in The Times , the supertitle distraction with Mr. Sondheim proves fatal. The lyrics are the stars of his musicals.
It’s why Elaine Paige, a star of the British musical, comes off best as a wonderfully funny Mrs. Lovett. Ms. Paige, a Cockney sparrow with a gigantic heart and voice, knows how to deliver a show-stopping song . Arias are different; arias are serious . Still, Mark Delavan, though he’s overacting a bit, sings Sweeney creepily well. He’s somber and even sweet as the man whose right arm wouldn’t be complete without his razor. The promise of death is Sweeney’s gleaming calling card. The seductive scene where Judge’s throat, innocently offered for a comforting shave from the salivating Sweeney during his lovely ballad, “Pretty Women,” is the show’s apotheosis.
Mr. Sondheim’s second bananas-hopelessly romantic Anthony in his cute little sailor suit, and sweet Joanna with her Rapunzel tresses-don’t bring out the best in Mr. Sondheim. (“I feel you, Joanna / I’ll steal you, Joanna.”) Whatever its faults, Sweeney Todd -one of the weirdest musicals ever created-works best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. As its rousing chorus goes, “Attend the tale of Sweeny Todd!” But when the chorus advances on the footlights at the curtain to point an accusing Brechtian finger at us, they’re saying, “Attend to the Sweeny within you.” Try telling that to the gala audience at City Opera, just before they go happily on to their opening-night banquet catered by Glorious Food.
From cannibalism and obsession to bugs and paranoia: Let me close this week by recommending another macabre tale, Bug , Tracy Letts’ acclaimed new play at Barrow Street, Greenwich Village. Set in a trashy motel room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, it’s meant to unsettle and disturb us, and it does.
Its lurid tale-which might seem like a tall tale-is about a paranoid Gulf War veteran who’s convinced the government is implanting real live bugs inside our bodies to control us. We’re literally being bugged. Mr. Letts (of Killer Joe ) and his director, Dexter Bullard, are so viscerally menacing that the more improbable the story of the bruised outsider-hero, Peter, appears to become, the more we’re suckered in. All I can say is that next time you visit the dentist to have a tooth filled, take every care and check what’s in the filling.
Bug ultimately works so well because its ensemble of five represents the most authentic actors in town. Michael Shannon’s performance as Peter is dangerous and compellingly loopy, but I must single out Shannon Cochran as Agnes, the burnt-out girl who invites a stranger into her motel room out of kindness and need. She can tell us the story of Agnes’ life just by sitting there! Silence-or stillness-is one of her strengths; a flickering, utterly natural range of feeling another. Ms. Cochran, the best new actress (new to me, anyway) that I’ve seen in a long time, brings a world onstage, making the evening extraordinary.
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