It’s perhaps ironic that the opera world is known for being conservative in its tastes, when its musical theatre offerings tend to be never less that highly stimulating both intellectually and musically. Vancouver Opera, not known for their daring productions, have consistently presented innovative and thought-provoking productions of classic pieces of the musical theatre world. In presenting Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Vancouver Opera is in good company – in the past month alone, both English National Opera and Houston Grand Opera have premiered their productions of Sondheim’s musical. Vancouver Opera’s new production, though, goes beyond the comfortable Victorian trappings of most productions and instead offers a contemporary one that is tense, incriminating and explosively theatrical.

Greer Grimsley (Sweeney Todd) and Karen Ydenberg (Beggar woman) © Tim Matheson
Greer Grimsley (Sweeney Todd) and Karen Ydenberg (Beggar woman)
© Tim Matheson

Director Kim Collier, known for her avant-garde theatre productions throughout Canada, sets the action in what is clearly modern day Vancouver. Though contemporary settings are now de rigueur in the opera world, Collier’s emphasis on the themes of consumerism, corruption, and poverty proved particularly pertinent. From the discomforting lurking presence of prostitutes to the faceless McDonald’s-esque efficiency of Mrs. Lovett’s new pie shop to the orgiastic excesses of Judge Turpin’s glass penthouse, the crimes of Todd and Mrs Lovett became sympathetic, even inevitable. The set was dominated by a massive metal bridge that shifted and rotated around the onstage orchestra, which neatly suggested all of the varying locales with minimum intrusiveness.

The production was very clearly designed for the talents of Greer Grimsley; one of the reigning Wotans of our time, and very much a star attraction in Vancouver and Seattle. And indeed, the production was an ideal fit for Grimsley’s animalistic intensity and presence. Regrettably, he fell victim to a cold and had to mime the role while his understudy George Masswohl was miked in from backstage – the massive disconnect between the character’s speaking and singing voices unfortunately highlighted the sub-optimal amplification used. Despite this, Grimsley’s excellent use of dialogue and overall commitment meant that it was still an excellent performance.

As a result, it fell to Luretta Bybee’s Mrs Lovett to carry the show – with her rich mezzo, vibrant stage presence, and deft humour, she easily won the audience over. She was the only member of the cast who was able to slip naturally between singing and speech, and thus formed the most coherent character onstage. The other standout was tenor Pascal Charbonneau as Tobias Ragg, who sang with astounding clarity and nuance. He also proved an energetic and sympathetic stage presence, and his duet with Mrs. Lovett in Act II was the most touching moment of the evening.

Greer Grimsley (Sweeney Todd) and Luretta Bybee (Mrs Lovett) © Tim Matheson
Greer Grimsley (Sweeney Todd) and Luretta Bybee (Mrs Lovett)
© Tim Matheson

The rest of the cast was up to this musical standard but had rather less to do with their characters. Rocco Rupolo and Caitlin Wood impressed as the young romantic couple, their full lyric voices only occasionally overwhelming their clichéd storyline. As the piece’s proper villains, baritone Doug MacNaughton and tenor Michael Barrett sneered and leered their way around the stage effective, but it was Karen Ydenberg’s luminous Beggar Woman who was the standout among the rest of the cast.

Conductor Jonathan Darlington and his onstage orchestra gave a luxury performance of Sondheim’s score, relishing in the Schoenberg-esque harmonies and spiky rhythms. The chorus unfortunately proved the weak link of the performance, sounding stretched by the score’s high tessitura. Overall, though, musical values were uniformly high, and when combined with Collier’s sardonically relevant production, will hopefully be a template for many more musicals to come.