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Monday, March 10, 2014

Concert Review: Savories, But No Salvation

The New York Philharmonic revives Sweeney Todd.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Savories: Emma Thompson (left) and Bryn Terfel serve up "A little priest"
in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
The audience never saw it coming.

When the lights went down in Avery Fisher Hall for the final performance of the New York Philharmonic's concert production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the stage looked set for a typical and staid gala in the usual manner of this venerable orchestral institution. Charming floral arrangements sat in pedestal vases at the wings. Alan Gilbert and the cast entered in neat evening wear, filing to music stands past an enormous concert grand downstage. They carried scores in neat binders, as if about to sing some Mendelssohn oratorio or perhaps Handel's Messiah.

Then Mr. Gilbert launched "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." In the middle of his first phrase, the towering Mr. Terfel threw his score derisively to the ground. Ms. Thompson did the same, ripping her scarlet gown to *ahem* "reveal" her costume. The flowers were upended. The piano (really a simple wooden box) was flipped. Its legs were torn off as it became an acting surface. And a curtain dropped at the back, revealing that the wooden walls of Avery Fisher Hall had received a graffiti makeover. The artist: SWEENEY TODD.

This is the second time the New York Philharmonic has mounted Sweeney in the concert hall. And the first time that the work (which straddles that fine line between "opera" and "musical") had been sung in New York by Mr. Terfel. (A back injury had forced the bass-baritone to cancel his appearances in 2000.) The towering Welshman responded to the opportunity with bold, dark tones, his thunderous proclamations and pianissimo phrases contrasting with each other in a vivid portrayal of Todd. Highlights included the soaring "My Friends" and vivid, tense duets. Sure, he went over-the-top, but this performance was in every way a much needed New York renaissance for this artist.

The gifted Ms. Thompson is known primarily as a screen actress, and before last Wednesday's prima she hadn't appeared onstage in decades. (This run also marks her New York stage debut.) On Saturday night, she played a complex Mrs. Lovett, scheming and yet at times motherly to both Todd and Tobias (Kyle Brenn). The voice is not perfect but the notes were present and accounted for, propelled through an acid-etched Cockney accent that never degenerated into parody. This was a carefully planned, very complete performance motivated by her character's secret and long-lasting love for her new business partner. The best moment was in "A Little Priest" where her spitfire comic delivery caused a broad grin to break across Mr. Terfel's face before Sweeney returned.

Tobias anchors the second act, and Mr. Brenn offered a tremolus and finely acted performance as the much-put-upon apprentice baker. Jay Armstrong Johnson was a handsome-voiced sailor Anthony Hope, whose love for Johanna is this show's tiny drop of comfort. Tenor Christian Borle played fast and loose with the bel canto parody music that characterizes Pirelli. Soprano Erin Mackey was very much the bird in a gilded cage as Johanna, her "Green Finch" aria was the first ray of sunshine in the score. Bryonha Marie Parham (After Midnight) was a searing, intense Beggar Woman, not letting the screams and sprechstimme required in the part get in the way proper singing when it was required. Philip Quast was an imposing Judge Turpin, but outclassed by Mr. Terfel in "Pretty Women."

This performance offered Mr. Sondheim's score with an emphasis on its shifts across three centuries of musical styles from the ballads of John Dowland to the progressive rock of the 1970s. The Ballad is the glue that holds these ingredients together. It was delivered by a skilled company of players, with energy and potent, burly tone. They melted onto the stage or disappeared quickly as Lonny Price's production kept the audience guessing even as the lambs were led to the slaughter. That staging made clever use of musical instruments as props: Mrs. Lovett rolled dough on a timpani and a spare cymbal became a pie-plate for "God, that's good!"

Alan Gilbert showed his skill as an opera conductor on this ghoulish thrill-ride, reveling in the heavier, fuller orchestration by Jonathan Tunick. He elucidated the dark corners of this complex score, bringing out sweet tones in the small wind ensemble and unleashing fearsome blasts of percussion and air-horn that accompanied the dozen murders that take place in the show. Particularly noticeable on Saturday night was Mr. Sondheim's penchant for musical quotation and parody, brought out by Mr. Gilbert's meticulous but impassioned leadership.

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