Morten Frank Larsen and Dagmar Hellberg © Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper
Morten Frank Larsen and Dagmar Hellberg
© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper
Stephen Sondheim’s tale of blood, revenge and the barber business has come to roost at the Vienna Volksoper for the first time in 2013/14. Premièred in 1979 on Broadway, the show took New York by storm, and now is enjoying a long overdue first run in Vienna. And while it’s by no means to be measured by Broadway standards, Vienna is a very long way from Broadway. Sweeney Todd at the Volksoper makes a very respectable showing, especially for a performance put on by a repertory house. By and large, the production is striking, strong, successful, and certainly well worth a viewing. Even an 83-year-old Stephen Sondheim managed to make it over for the première.

The stage design by Mathias Fischer-Dieskau is one of the most effective to be seen in the Viennese world of musicals. In dirty steel with a slick red framing and opulent costumes in blacks, whites and reds, this production is dark yet visually strong and pleasing to the eye. The action rotates on and beneath a large, steel cog. This puts the action on two levels, keeping the large ensemble from collision and projecting vitality through movement. Additionally it underlies the inhuman mechanism that is London, depicted here as a hotbed of immorality, violence and dirt. In fact, regular attendees of Viennese opera premieres this season must slowly be starting to wonder what the Big Smoke has done to offend Vienna recently. Having put on Stravinsky’s A Rake’s Progress, Ian Bell’s A Harlot’s Progress and now Sweeney Todd, the city certainly is not getting any sort of PR bump on this part of the continent! Regardless, this show worked in all its spurting blood, chilling screams and bodies disappearing down hatches. The audience left the theatre whistling happily about the demon barber of Fleet Street.

© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper
© Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper
Musically, both choir and orchestra are to be heartily commended for their efforts. It’s easy to underestimate the considerable musical challenges Sondheim’s complex “musical thriller” presents, and though certain scenes were rough around the edges, everything hung together admirably. The orchestra played with energy and intensity under the baton of Joseph Olefirowicz, and the ensemble was imbued with energy which came through both vocally and physically; kudos to Matthias Davids for his direction.

Casting lead roles in this musical is always going to be a matter or taste. With all the musical complexity of modern opera but still firmly in the musical theatre genre, it’s sometimes difficult to find voices for the principal roles that not only work individually but also when paired. Moreover, musical theatre requires incredible clarity of text, so voices that are beautiful but positioned further back in their resonance often don’t speak quite as well to the style.

I personally appreciated Morten Frank Larson (Sweeney Todd)’s dour, haunted appearance, but have heard more convincing voices in the role. Dagmar Hellberg stole the show for her depiction of Miss Lovett. After a bit of a rocky start trying to spit out the breathlessly quick “The Worst Pies in London” in wordy German, she was wonderful as the entrepreneurial and morally ambiguous partner to Todd, cooking his victims into her wares and dreaming of a romantic life near the sea. Anita Goetz was equally effective as the beautiful, naïve and slightly neurotic Johanna. Her voice spoke seamlessly in all registers and she bridged the gap between classical and musical styles without apparent effort. Robert Meyer was a horrifyingly engaging Richter Turpin, and Tom Schimon (Tobias Ragg) and Daniel Ochoa (Anthony Hope) and Patricia Nessy (Beggar woman) also gave noteworthy performances.

Book your tickets now, and let the bloodbath begin!

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