Review: NZ Opera’s Sweeney Todd is disgustingly delightful

(David Rowland/Supplied)
(David Rowland/Supplied)

The beauty of Sweeney Todd is its ugliness. This gothic tale of murder, cannibalism and revenge is told through a marathon of complex, dissonant songs, which irk the ear in the most satisfying way.

As soon as NZ Opera’s ensemble hits that first glass-shattering crescendo, you know you’re in safe hands. The power and precision with which they navigate Stephen Sondheim’s fiendishly difficult music creates a spine-tingling foundation for the outstanding principal cast in this musical horror.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes plays the title role, a barber recently returned to London after 15 years in exile who is determined to exact revenge on the judge who sent him there and stole his daughter while he was away.

Rhodes’ gravelly baritone perfectly conveys the anger and obsession which gives Sweeney Todd his murderous streak, although he displays more range and depth in voice than in face. Still, Todd’s pain is palpable and Rhodes leaves enough in the tank to intensify his rage in the bloody, tragic second act.

Review: NZ Opera’s Sweeney Todd is disgustingly delightful

Antoinette Halloran as Mrs Lovett (L) and Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Sweeney Todd (David Rowland/Supplied)

He is well-matched by Australian soprano Antoinette Halloran as the considerably more tender but equally conniving Mrs Lovett, who runs the pie shop underneath Todd’s tonsorial parlour. Her voice is so strong that a brief microphone mishap barely affected its volume.

Together, Todd and Mrs Lovett hatch a gruesome plan which will enable Todd to exact revenge on his enemies while conveniently and cheaply providing meat for Mrs Lovett’s pies. Halloran’s comedic streak make the Act I closer ‘A Little Priest’ one of the show’s highlights.

Other standout performances came from Amelia Berry (Johanna), Joel Granger (Tobias Ragg) and Helen Medlyn (beggar woman), but the cast as a whole is very strong, creating a host of entertaining characters - many unlikeable and with fixations which, more often than not, turn out to be fatal.

Review: NZ Opera’s Sweeney Todd is disgustingly delightful

Helen Medlyn as the beggar woman (David Rowland/Supplied)

The production is fairly conventional in staging and design but it's effective, making good use of space and angular lighting to enhance the drama. Roger Kirk's costumes create an appropriately bawdy image of Victorian London.

It's worth noting that Sondheim's score is layered with counterpoint in parts which, when combined with the lyrical complexity, can occasionally make it hard to decipher what is being sung. However it's usually incidental and serves mostly to heighten the wonderful chaos, conflict and dissonance.

The demon barber of Fleet Street may seem like an unconventional choice for NZ Opera, but the musical’s operatic style makes them a perfect match and it's sure to attract a wider audience than its other productions might.

Be sure to attend the tale of Sweeney Todd - it's a twisted, disgustingly delightful night out full of dark humour and tragedy. But it might put you off pies for a while.

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