Cher Public

Leave it to cleaver

Two nights in a row at the War Memorial—it’s all a mad, gay whirl! If I’d gotten an hour less sleep you’d now find me mixing everything up and writing about Mrs. Lovett making her entrance on a bronze horse like Peter the Great.  

A little hand-waving at an obvious question: Opera houses do put on Sondheim, of course, and there’s no real point in wasting words on whether Sweeney Todd is a musical. To do so is to engage in a thinly veiled referendum on the piece’s worth, and it’s just too clear that it’s a worthy and lasting piece of American culture to bother.

Plays are done on television, or they used to be, and remain plays. Sweeney Todd done in an opera house is just Sweeney Todd. Few real changes are needed—a bigger orchestra, mics for the dialogue, and what the press packet, with presumably unintentional cuteness, informed us were “various small cuts.”

One thing is certain, though: for all audiences adore it, Sweeney Todd is not one of those foolproof pieces. Patti LuPone, in her recent memoir, calls it “the most difficult score I’ve ever sung” and despite her intense, peculiar performance, the John Doyle production was a mixed success; its plodding minimalism, taken with the grimness of the tale, at times gilded the tuberose.

Worst of all, nobody tried to take any pictures so we shall never know the extra-grand Guignol of seeing an audience member brained with a tuba by a severely bobbed Cockney.

In any case, a three-thousand-seat hall does present different performance issues than one a third as big. Singing technique that travels well to standing room isn’t often learned alongside idiomatic musical theater style.

Going in, I wouldn’t have expected Stephanie Blythe (now, in my reckoning, primarily a Wagnerienne of noble bearing)  to be the person onstage who best obliterated that dichotomy but there she was, fitting her famously clarion instrument into a performance that would be warmly received in any Broadway house.

Nellie Lovett isn’t as simple as she looks, but Blythe found the right midpoint of vulgarity, charm, and malevolence that makes the character one of Sondheim’s best creations.

Her comic timing, and again I’ll admit to being surprised, is also impeccable. I’ve known the words to “The Worst Pies in London” for decades but laughed at Blythe’s delivery as if the jokes were new.

Brian Mulligan, heard recently on these boards as Anckarstrom and Chorèbe, was another pre-season substitution but in no other sense a substitute, claiming the role fully and fearlessly from his entrance.

Mulligan’s diction rendered supertitles unnecessary, and his lack of vanity in a role that is starry but deeply unglamorous put to rest the doubts I had about opera singers making much of Sweeney—doubts I think I can blame on Bryn Terfel, who mugged his way through the role in Chicago a dozen years ago in one of those funniest-kid-in-drama-club scenery buffets that sometimes eclipses his glorious singing. Mulligan sang from a place of creepy stillness. Mulligan was, in short, magnificent.

As a team, Mulligan and Blythe also had… chemistry is the wrong word, since we’re talking about a couple of hastily groomed sociopaths, so let’s just say “A Little Priest” produced that rare electricity in the house, building to the familiar tableau of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, rolling pin and cleaver in hand, and a rowdy intermission ovation.

Supporting roles were less consistently cast. Judge Turpin seemed to lie uncomfortably for Wayne Tigges (who I keep thinking is married to Idina Menzel) and in casting Heidi Stober as Johanna, SFO continued its streak of not knowing quite how to use her.

Elliot Madore sang handsomely but somewhat indistinctly as Anthony. It was strange to see Elizabeth Futral, still active in starrier, more youthful parts, as the Beggar Woman, but she threw herself into the role.

The great surprise was Matthew Grills, like Madore a recent Met Council winner. While Toby’s Act I carnival shill number offers little opportunity to shine—it’s the weakest piece in the show, the over-cleverest of Sondheim rhymes stacked atop one another on an appropriately grating melody—”Not While I’m Around” was a revelation, sweetly sung with great vocal suavity.

Here was where someone sings “Dalla sua pace” had an edge over someone who mostly sings “Hello, Dolly!” Grills is shipping off to Munich to join the ensemble for a few years, they’ll have to give him back eventually, won’t they?

Conductor Patrick Summers and director Lee Blakely, whose credits include opera and quite a bit of Sondheim, gave the evening a nervous, energetic pace. There are six more performances of Sweeney Todd through the end of the month.

Photos: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

  • la vociaccia

    Wow, had no idea Mulligan was going on instead. Great to hear that he did well -- I’ve really loved him the times I’ve seen him. It’s a very handsome sound and as you mention he has an understated demeanor that can be very smoldering in the right roles.

  • Patrick Mack

    Headline. Genius.

  • Great review, thank you. Glad to hear of Blythe’s success. Brian Mulligan sang Enrico in these parts a couple of years ago and was mighty impressive.

  • zinka

    “Review: Michael Fabiano’s Star Ascends in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 2015
    September 12th, 2015

    The San Francisco Opera opened its 2015-16 season with a rousing revival of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller”. Famously a “tenor’s opera”, it is unabashedly a vehicle for the brilliant lyric tenor voice of Michael Fabiano, a rapidly rising star on the world’s operatic stages.

    Only the third tenor to appear in San Francisco as the opera’s hero Rodolfo (his predecessors were the legendary Luciano Pavarotti and the young Marcello Giordani), it was a triumphant evening for Fabiano, with a resounding and deserved ovation for Rodolfo’s great aria Quando le sere al placido.”

    On the rarest of occasions, since there are so many recordings, we get to hear a totally new voice that we never ever heard before. This first happened to me in 1956, as Antonietta Stella entered as Aida in her Met debut.
    Similarly, When Michael Fabiano started the recitative and then sang the Lombardi aria at Phil.Hall 2 ys.ago, I “jumped,” as did the audience. This rarely happens to me and to most of us, since we usually previews on Youtube,etc…but this was a revelation, and I feel that Michael is special, and also smart enough to keep the voice a bit longer than Elena Suliotis.
    Any thoughts from the Loggione????

    • JohninSeattle

      ROAD TRIP!!!! Time to pack a bag…

      • zinka

        no get it….

    • Camille

      Well, zinka, just make sure Il Fabiano doesn’t sing Norma and Abigaille and he should last longer than povera Suliotis, so gifted.

      You’re right: he IS special.

      • antikitschychick

        “Suliotis, so gifted.” Indeed! I’ve loved every single recording I’ve heard of hers; a beautifully and naturally clarion, mellifluous and agile voice.

        and yes, Fab is special too. Here he is sanging Nessun Dorma in the park in SanFran…shame about the audio quality…

        and here’s a fun O Sole Mio trio:

        I kind of wish he would ‘put away’ Nessun Dorma for a while until he’s ready to sing Calaf or at least until he’s ready to record the aria. I really hope he gets to record an album soon! Can’t wait to hear him as Don Carlo as well. Very exciting things coming up for him.

        • Camille

          HOLA Chiquita! Egads is he singing that damn Nessun dorma too? Basta, Roberti!

          Very happy you know of Suliotis and your choice of descriptive adjectives is precisely right. She sings a wonderful Luisa Miller excerpt on an album of arias--it is a reprint of one which came out originally in the late sixties or early seventies. There is also a wonderful “Morrò, ma prima in grazia”, always a big test. She had it all and it all got used up too quickly--I don’t know the real story only that it is a shame she is only remembered for that bummer Norma at Carnegie Hall and burning out too soon. She was also especially good in an opera I like of Catalani Loreley, which exists on YouTube.

          Well, I am looking forward to hearing La Yoncheva and hope she will rise to this big momentous occasion, a big break for her in a lot of ways. I do not know if you have yet had the chance to attend any Wagner opera but if you can at least get to the HD of Tannhäuser as, worn out and dingy as the bottom of a dirty swimming pool as the set looked, even in 1997 and can’t imagine it now, Big Botha will do the role up right and since it is a stand and deliver role well--there’s no problem about acting in this one. The cast is strong and even if Westbroek is not in such good voice she is a good stage figure and pretty as Michelle DeYoung has a beautiful voice but is not as gifted scenically, at least of what I’ve seen so far, and there is a deluxe Wolfram in Peter Mattei and Groissbeck or whatever his name is as Uncle Landgraf. If you haven’t had much Wagner it is, I tell you, a lot easier than starting with Parsifal or The Ring, e.g. You shouldn’t miss the Lulu either, also in HD.

          Hope those student tickets pan out on some of the dates and don’t forget to leave TEMPRANO to get to the Met so you don’t get stuck in List Hall or, as I call it, —
          The Rec Room, or The Detention Center.

          Buenas noches y muchos exitos!

          • antikitschychick

            Hi Camille,

            Apologies for the late reply. I definitely plan on catching the HD of Lulu as I love listening and being exposed to more contemporary works, particularly because the productions tend to be more interesting and less static and feature performers who can act well. I’ll definitely try and catch Taunhauser as well. I did see the first two installments of the Ring and I’ve seen Parsifal and Lohengrin (and I absolutely loved every single one of those performances, especially the Met Parsifal) but I don’t like watching/listening to complete Wagner operas on Youtube, especially not without subtitles even though I love Wagner. I think I need to invest in DVDs in order to get a good grasp/exposure to the other operas I haven’t seen rather than watch clips online although I’m going to just try and attend more live performances since that’s really the best way to experience the “Wagner effect.”

            Re: Suliotis, I didn’t know anything about her career so I’m glad you provided some background info on her. It’s a shame she burned out too soon but at least we have those great recordings to listen to. I definitely plan on checking out more recordings of hers. As always thanks for your continued well wishes :-).

        • Camille


          Particularly like the way she handles the cabaletta. She had a big success on stage in this role.

          Luisa Miller Is an interesting, and uneven, work but the last act has some passages which are wonderful, very moving, and it indeed feels not like a melodramma but a tragic play. If I am not very mistaken I think I read on Wiki Met futures that Yoncheva will be singing it here in a couple years. A difficult role and one not served by a flighty lirico-coloratura but a more spintoish cast with adequate, well really excellent skill in fioriture. Speriam bene ed ora basta e buonanotte, querida Chica abogada!

        • Cicciabella

          I heartily second a Fabiano album: capture him now while the voice is fresh and young. But I hope it won’t be another string of Puccini chestnuts, but some of the rarer repertoire he’s been singing. And no-one needs another Nessun dorma, not after every popera man, child and cat charlatan has spoilt it for everyone. If anyone wants to listen to it, there’s the glorious Pavarotti version, which will never be surpassed for sheer vocal beauty.

        • gustave of montreal

          Its not Nessun Dorma but Nessun Vomita

          • armerjacquino

            ‘nobody will vomit’

      • zinka

        Michael is very smart,,,,,even though he is a tenor(ggg)..Believe me…he should last…but I predict someday Manricoi,etc..the voice has the darkness and brightness and power.

  • zinka

    Tassinari 9/15/1903 Just gorgeous and emotional with hubby Ferruccio…Should be better known…..Truly so beautiful.

    They NEVER do it here……

    • Camille

      I absolutely adored this and many, many thank yous for such an unexpected treat. The end of the opera has always been my favorite part, aside from Suzel’s duet with Rabbi David. I expected it to be the Ciliege duet and almost didn’t listen — had had no idea they recorded more than just the former duet. This is so much more passionate than the Pavarotti/Freni version, which is beautifully vocalised and certainly no chopped liver at all! But this was just a dream! Beautiful voices, beautiful singing line, beautiful expression--tutto bello!!

      About Fabiano: why so long in the future for Manrico for next summer he will sing Don Carlo--Manrico is more in his belcanto line of singing, it would seem to me. He has time. I am happy he is on the scene and he gives me hope for the future.

  • Camille

    You mention Blythe’s comic timing—although not exactly comic, she was exacting and extremely alert to all possibilities and created a most vivid character as Ulrica aka Mme Whatshername in Ballo. She really held the stage and dominated it, unlike good old Dolora who looked tuckered out in comparison. It would seem to me she would make a tasty dish out of this role and more power to her.

    • Also, she was a terrific Katisha at the LOC a few seasons back.

      • mjmacmtenor

        Her one woman show on Kate Smith (shown on PBS) was terrific as well. She sings popular music as if “to the manor born”. Best I’ve heard since the days of Eileen Farrell, Would enjoy seeing her as Dolly Levi.

  • Krunoslav

    Suliotos is neither mellifluos nor agile in her disastrous recorded Bolena or Lady Macbeth. What a shame, ther ei sso much to enjoy in her early promise. But NO one could sustain the rep she was doing at hat pace, plus teh social life…

    At least New York-centric Zinka doesn’t claim to have DISCOVERED Fabiano this time; some of us had been hearing him for years in Philly and Princeton and were well aware of his gifts.

    But yes, Tassinari’s recordings are very lovely- da piangere.

    • Camille

      Why is it you deem her recorded Anna Bolena such a disaster, may I ask?
      I am not quite convinced of that.

      The Macbeth recording I have always avoided, as much for FiDi as she.

  • Krunoslav

    She is clearly in straits at every moment of the recording. The acuti sound like they tried to put them through a resonance chamber. Monochrome, forced singing. Of course Lady M is worse, but…

    A shame, as Horne. Alexaner and Ghiaurov are very good indeed, as is Our Own Janet Coster!