Sweeney Todd, Royal Opera House

A gory slice of Sondheim at his cutting-edge best
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The Independent Culture

Was it opera? Is the Royal Opera House dumbing down? Does it merit public money? Not miking; not surtitles in English - surely? Forget the groans. This was a terrific show. OK, so there were first-night rough edges. This work can pack more of a punch and it could have been darker, grimmer, more savage.

But Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is a work that deserves to hold its own in any opera house. For a start, like Bernstein's Candide, it's got a humdinger of a libretto (oops, I should have said book and lyrics) - better than a hundred operas I could name - by Hugh Wheeler and Sondheim himself. With its shrewd New England take on Dickensian London, at times it's a bit like hitting Bart's Oliver for the first time. But this has a (slightly ageing) cast to kill for, and the poor old dears sing their socks off.

Opera North found a suave young laddie to sing their demon barber a few years ago. Unfazed, the Royal Opera House has come up with Sir Thomas Allen, and deuced good he is - a kind of baritone take on Canio in Pagliacci, battered by the myriad conflicting emotions that make Peter Grimes or even Lulu great operas.

By the end, when Todd bumps off his wife and daughter in quick succession it turns in a Titus Andronicus finale or even King Lear finale, with tenor Doug Jones's sympathetic Tobias serving up more than a dose of Lear's Fool. But that's the point: it's shrewd, it's complex, it's bitter. The pace is Broadway, no mere candyfloss "musical" here. Neil Armfield's production has transferred fantastically well to the capacious stage of the Royal Opera House.

The sets, grim cages that suggest the claustrophobic lives of all the characters, are perfect. It is from these that the lovers, Thomas Dazeley (Hope, as he's called with a sort of John Bunyan/Iris Murdoch twist) and Johanna (Rebecca Evans) - both splendid - try to escape, and it is around these that the prison guards (Sweeney's Botany Bay past) and undertaker-like figures amble.

Coping with the miking - more amplifiers, please - in one joyously horrible, gargling duet after another, come Felicity Palmer (Mrs Lovett, the human mincer) ; Jonathan Veira and Robert Tear (bluff Dickensian cameos to treasure); and even - in the hopelessly underdirected key role of Todd's lost wife - Rosalind Plowright, who should be understudying Palmer's role. Wonderful stuff: gory and more sickening than plum pudding. It's just what Christmas needs.

At the Royal Opera House until 14 January. (020 7304 4000). Tickets £4-£75