West Australian Opera is not alone in performing works that are more usually thought of as music theatre rather than opera to get patrons in the door, and it can be argued that the distinction is arbitrary. To my knowledge, no one has been able to prove that a visit to My Fair Lady has attendees thronging for Verdi or Wagner, but at least a sell-out subsidises the more regular fare and Sweeney Todd has been just that.

Antoinette Halloran (Mrs Lovett) with WAO Chorus © James Rogers
Antoinette Halloran (Mrs Lovett) with WAO Chorus
© James Rogers

In a co-production with Victorian Opera and New Zealand Opera by director Stuart Maunder, no expense has been spared in this effective and well-produced show, featuring dazzling Australasian talent including gifted locals, great orchestral and choral accompaniment, nifty on-stage movement and creative settings. While one can appreciate Sondheim’s witty and sometimes appropriately Victorian sentimental lyrics, the problem (for this reviewer at least) is his ultimately boring music. Why is it that, despite varied moods, modes, tempi, orchestrations, actual performances, it all ultimately sounds the same? How many songs does anyone go home singing? How many do you take to an audition? Of course that is not the fault of anyone other than the composer, and maybe it’s just me.

Antoinette Halloran (Mrs Lovett) and Ben Mingay (Sweeney Todd) © James Rogers
Antoinette Halloran (Mrs Lovett) and Ben Mingay (Sweeney Todd)
© James Rogers

The set comprised tall wooden structures at the sides which could be wheeled in and out and provided different levels for the action to take place. A larger structure in the middle moved forward and backward and also rotated, providing different views of the upstairs barbershop, with a clever chute arrangement for despatching bodies from the barber’s chair to the nether regions of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop.

The on-stage players were excellently deployed about the stage and its different levels, creating bustling street scenes and a scary visit to Bedlam, as well as intimate exchanges between the principals – all in Victorian dress from different classes of society (set and costumes are by Roger Kirk). There were also dazzling lighting effects from Philip Lethlean, simulating the foggy streets of 19th-century London, as well as shafts of a greenish light which atmospherically cloaked the stage at salient points.

Ben Mingay (Sweeney Todd) and Antoinette Halloran (Mrs Lovett) © James Rogers
Ben Mingay (Sweeney Todd) and Antoinette Halloran (Mrs Lovett)
© James Rogers

Members of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and the West Australian Opera Chorus were led by Brett Weymark, better known as a conductor of Baroque sacred music, but here seeming right at home with the more Broadway style required. The chorus was razor sharp in both its vocal and movement requirements.

The solo singers were led by Ben Mingay in the title role. Best known as an actor on Australian television, as well as an established singer in musical theatre, Mingay totally inhabited the title role vocally and dramatically, with steely resolve and palpable malevolence towards the society which created him as the monster we see. Mrs Lovett was portrayed by Antoinette Halloran, an operatic soprano, although you would hardly know it here: her operatic voice was little heard in the role and indeed she sounded like a well-seasoned Broadway belter – apart from the odd shaft of golden high note. She also displayed a robust, warm, if shrewd character with impeccable comic timing. The two young men, Tobias Ragg and Anthony Hope, were performed well by emerging singers Joshua Reckless (who seems to be specialising in music theatre) and Nathan Stark (more emphasis on the operatic tenor repertoire).

Matt Reuben James Ward (Beadle Bamford) and James Clayton (Judge Turpin) © James Rogers
Matt Reuben James Ward (Beadle Bamford) and James Clayton (Judge Turpin)
© James Rogers

The score allowed the two other principal women to display their usual vocal chops. Emma Pettemerides has the perfect soubrette tone and beguiling manner for the young but wronged lover Joanna Barker, and Perth mezzo Fiona Campbell was unrecognisable – apart from her rich creamy voice – as the beggar woman, but if anyone didn’t figure out who she really was before the end, well, you’ve obviously never seen an opera or a melodrama on stage or screen before.

All the other roles were filled with satisfying singer/actors, particularly Perth baritone James Clayton as an authoritative Judge Turpin, Matt Reuben James Ward as a very nasty Beadle Bamford and tenor Paul O’Neill an entertaining Pirelli/O’Higgins.

****1