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Sweeney Todd review at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – ‘a full-blooded triumph’

George Ure and Janis Kelly in Sweeney Todd at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Photo: Johan Persson George Ure and Janis Kelly in Sweeney Todd at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Photo: Johan Persson

Arguably Sondheim’s greatest achievement, Sweeney Todd was written for, and first premiered on, the Broadway stage in 1979; but it is now as regularly done on operatic stages as it is in musical houses. I’ve seen in at Drury Lane and at the Royal Opera House, the Trafalgar Studios and the London Coliseum, the Circle in the Square on Broadway and at Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater (now the David H Koch Theater).

Sondheim once said that the  main difference between them lies “in the expectation of the audience”. He went on to amplify, “Primarily an opera is something done in an opera house in front of an opera audience. And a show, or whatever you want to call it – musical play, musical comedy – is something done in either a Broadway or Off-Broadway theatre, in front of that kind of audience.”

No contemporary demonstration of what Sondheim means is more clearly afforded than by James Brining’s production, originally created for Dundee Rep Theatre in 2010 and then revived by him at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds in 2013 in a co-production with Manchester’s Royal Exchange where it transferred afterwards. Then it was a musical; now, the self-same physical staging is revived again under the auspices of Welsh National Opera, and it makes an effortless transition to sing a full-blown opera, recast mainly with opera singer principals and kitted out with a full opera chorus, lending bulk to a stage that has almost 40 singers on it at times, and accompanied by a generously full-blooded opera orchestra.

In some ways, the creative liberties taken with Brining’s concept are more easily assimilated in an opera setting, since opera audiences are used to high concept industrial settings like this that add a whole new layer to the narrative. It takes its cue from Mr Fogg’s madhouse where Johanna is sent to set the whole show in an asylum, with industrial crates providing location settings of the barber shop and the judge’s house within it, while Pirelli’s mobile barber shop is driven in on the back of a lorry. Any sense of Victoriana is entirely banished to be replaced with one of 1970s Britain.

But there’s still a sense of displacement, and again, an opera house excuses this when a theatre wouldn’t: David Arnsperger’s performance in the title role is so heavily accented that it seems he took a long way home from Australia via Germany, but his brooding presence and vocals are so powerful that it doesn’t matter, even when put beside the far more authentically Cockney contributions of Janis Kelly’s desperate Mrs Lovett and George Ure’s delightful Toby.

Ure is a musical theatre actor, as is Jamie Muscato in the key role of Anthony – if the show earns its place in an opera house, so do they, holding their own in every way with such powerful singers as Steven Page and Aled Hall as Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford respectively.

Under James Holmes’s meticulous baton, echoes of the score’s classical influences – from Benjamin Britten to Hitchcock film composer Bernard Herrmann – rumble and resonate. The show is a full-blooded triumph, in every sense.

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The operatic stage proves once again a perfect fit for Sondheim's great masterwork, impeccably served here