Stephen Sondheim’s hit Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened to great acclaim on Broadway in 1979 and in London’s West End a year later. The gritty story of robbed time and revenge marks Zurich Opera's first venture into the more popular musical genre. Hats off to the house's artistic director Andreas Homoki for staging the production, not just because it’s fun, but as an appeal to a wider public.

Bryn Terfel (Sweeney Todd) and Barry Banks (Pirelli)
© Monika Rittershaus

In the lead role, Welsh bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel gave a robust and determined Sweeney Todd, who takes revenge on those who stripped him of all he loved. His character murders many, including – albeit by mistake – his beloved Lucy, the wife whom he had to leave when condemned to 30 years’ prison... and that only because a conniving municipal judge lusted after Lucy and wanted her husband out of the way. 

Terfel’s is a remarkable sound; a king of Wagnerian resonance, he also shines in what’s asked of him here. Sweeney Todd features few real hits of the kind that West Side Story or Cats, say, brought into 20th-century living rooms. Even Sweeney Todd’s repetitive “Joanna” ballad about his beloved daughter falls short of memorable. Nonetheless, Terfel showed himself a master of his craft; he sang with as much conviction in his tender tones as he did as an enraged psychopath. And he had some downright terrific lines; as the barber, for example, he promises his unsuspecting victim “the closest shave you’ll ever have”. 

Angelika Kirchschlager (Mrs Lovett) and Spencer Lang (Tobias)
© Monika Rittershaus

As the enterprising Mrs Lovett, Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager was excellent. Her character’s complete lack of morality was somehow endearing, and her cuddling up to Mr Todd, not without reason. She was party to the victims of his vengeance being shuttled from the barber’s chair to the cellar/bakeshop below, where she uses their flesh in her tasty – and saleable – meat pies. Kirchschlager portrayed the woman’s sly ingenuity famously, and an infectious twinkle was as much present in her voice as in her eye. Her hilarious two-horned wig in the second act couldn’t have been more fitting.

As Anthony Hope, the young sailor who falls in love with Sweeney’s grown daughter, baritone Elliot Madore had one of the most promising voices in the cast. His creamy love song was endearing, and he showed great control of his range. Mélissa Petit acted convincingly as Joanna, but projected well only in high voice, and was all but inaudible in her lower register. That the two lovers were miked hardly seemed plausible, though; the orchestra’s sound sometimes overpowered theirs.

Brindley Sherratt (Judge Turpin) and Mélissa Petit (Johanna)
© Monika Rittershaus

Brindley Sherratt sang an austere, emotionless Judge Turpin, and rightly so, for as the “odious vulture of the law”, he had raised Sweeney’s daughter as his ward, but ended up lusting after her. A modest audience might give an X-rating to the staging of his wet dream. Iain Milne sang a convincing, if somewhat wooden Beadle Bamford, a disposition that likely goes with the territory. Barry Banks sang the amusing faux-Italian Pirelli who, threatening to reveal Todd’s real identity, is the first to have his throat slit. Spencer Lang excelled at the mentally-infirm Tobias who was charged with cleaning up the others’ mess; as the delusional old hag, Liliana Nikiteanu had few vocal interludes, but was forever schlepping about the stage begging alms. She, too, was murdered for recognizing Sweeney, but realising he’d killed his own Lucy, Todd commits suicide.  

Bryn Terfel (Sweeney Todd)
© Monika Rittershaus

Michael Levine’s set design was minimalistic, if not practically bare. A downstage, stiff canvas screen made a light-coloured backdrop for the flurry of choir and extras before it, or hanging over its uppermost rail. In countless trips up and down, the screen added to the animation, and forced the drama’s ill deeds farther into the audience’s space. But it also reduced the stage room radically, such that the choir, whose musical contribution was superb, often appeared as part of a three-layered police line-up. The sparsely painted background – alternating between Gerhard Richter-like clouds and a few staggered smokestacks of the Industrial era – adding precious little to the impression of truly hard times.

That said, Annemarie Wood’s costumes were outstanding. The poorer folk appeared in every conceivable striped, checked, and mottled shade of grey. But the sophisticated beach-goers in Mrs Lovett’s active imagination paraded in fine black and white silks and carried parasols that would be envy of any respectable period doll. And under conductor David Charles Abell, the Philharmonia Zürich did very nicely by the score. In sum, this Sweeney Todd fuelled creative imaginations, unleashed some fine singers and showed the Zurich Opera House weighing a strategic question: Quo vadis? More popular? More musicals? History will tell, but if so, please bring back Leonard Bernstein.