Bang! Bang! Bang! The barbarians are at the gate. Pop! Pop! Pop! Another glass of bubbly, please. Broadway has come to Bow Street and over the past two weeks of pre-publicity for Covent Garden's Lyric Opera Chicago co-production of Sweeney Todd, we have learnt that referring to this toe-tapping tale of serial cannibalism as anything other than opera is, whisper it, "snobbery".
A craftier kick at the Achilles heel of high culture is hard to imagine. Inclusivity is the buzz-word here and I suppose the hope is that if the punters are lured in by Stephen Sondheim they might come back for Strauss. Meanwhile, Sweeney Todd's venerable lead, Thomas Allen, has claimed that the title role is as operatic as any he has sung; which, lest we forget, includes Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva, Beckmesser, Onegin and Billy Budd. Really? That Sweeney Todd is "better than a hundred operas I could name" - to quote one early reviewer - is perfectly credible but isn't the fact that there are as many again that are better than it rather more pertinent? And where do we draw the line? Is Oliver! an opera? Well, call me elitist but I can't see a qualitative difference between "Not while I'm around" and "As long as he needs me", though Bart is less excitable than Sondheim when it comes to the purple glottals of London vernacular. No, what fascinates me about this special-case hullabaloo, which has more to do with historical neuroses about the parlous state of American opera pre-Nixon in China than it does with Sondheim per se, is where the real snobbery lies. Isn't being a good musical good enough these days? Isn't the quality of the performance the most important thing?
Of course it is. But just as one should demand a superlative production of Giulio Cesare or Gianni Schicchi from the Royal Opera House, so one should demand a superlative production of Sweeney Todd and this isn't it. Director Neil Armfield's drab, disorganised shadow-play - which lazily places the entire drama in an asylum - bears no comparison to David McVicar's visceral production for Opera North or Keith Warner's disturbing Wozzeck; the desanguinated palette of which it dimly recalls. And fine singers though they are, Allen and company are no more able to belt out a Sondheim show-stopper than Julia Mackenzie can sing Cio-Cio San. But Sweeney Todd was not written for operatically trained voices. Though Anthony (William Dazeley) and Judge Turpin (Jonathan Veira) have some nice moments in middle range, only Johanna (Rebecca Evans) and Pirelli (Bonaventura Bottone) get to sing in head voice and, once there, remain at high altitude like forgotten baubles on a faux-fir Christmas tree. The rest of the roles are low because Sondheim writes for actors who can sing as opposed to singers who can act.
Alone among Covent Garden's leads and, I'm sorry to say, the chorus too, Felicity Palmer shows an understanding of this crucial difference; adopting the kind of toothy West End Sprechstimme more common to graduates of Rada than the Royal Academy of Music. Her garrulous Mrs Lovett - all winks and mugs and pointy elbows - is in a quite different league to Allen's colourless am-dram Sweeney, though she has made life hard for herself by dropping more aitches than Barbara Windsor 'as 'ad 'ot dinners. The ultra-reliable Veira and Bottone aside, Sweeney Todd's supporting cast seem perplexed at how underwritten their roles are, while Doug Jones's antipathetic Tobias dominates to an uncomfortable degree. The amplification is uneven, the movement often haphazard. Indeed, the only person at the top of his game is conductor Paul Gemignani: a Broadway veteran who shows Sondheim's orchestral style to be a demanding discipline and a very different one to any that the orchestra of the Royal Opera House have encountered hitherto.
But I can't believe that this music is rewarding to play after Verdi or Mussorgsky. For Sweeney Todd is closer to Singspiel than opera: witty, text-driven, melodically undemanding, episodic, thinly orchestrated, self-consciously syncopated, with sarcastic splashes of brittle neo-classicism. For the seasoned opera-goer its violence is nothing new: matricide, patricide, infanticide, we've seen it all. And in the context of Covent Garden, with darker and more suggestive scores still fresh in my memory, Sondheim's party-favours quickly pall. Take the puns away, remove star-quality, suspense and panache and there's nothing left but a few sentimental standards. This is not snobbery. It's wanting to experience the shiver you get from watching people doing what they do best. The kind of shiver I remember from seeing Mackenzie in Follies and Dame Judi Dench in A Little Night Music. The kind of shiver I remember from seeing Palmer in Elektra. The kind of shiver you might, with different repertoire, expect from the Royal Opera House. And had they paid more respect to the specific disciplines of a different genre instead of pretending that Sweeney Todd is an opera, they might have got away with murder.
Of course, I wouldn't have felt quite so bitter had this not been another example of opera, however inaccurate the taxonomy, taking precedence over a concert: in this case the Brahms Requiem as performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. But having heard their Schumann and Brahms at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the previous night, it was evens as to whether Rattle's Requiem would inspire or alienate. Those with longish memories may recall Sir Charles Mackerras's Schumann with the OAE. Those with even longer memories might remember Sir Roger Norrington's Brahms Requiem with the London Classical Players. And I couldn't help thinking of both conductors during the St Anthony Variations and wondering what they might have done. You see, Rattle's Brahms with the OAE is remarkably similar to Rattle's Brahms with the Berliner Philharmoniker: precise, sometimes recklessly fast and overlaid with an air-tight legato veneer that few conductors pursue nowadays. The tempi were near-identical to those at his Prom, which also had the same lack of rubato and invention. It's as though changing the timbre of the instruments is radical enough in itself. But it isn't. The orchestra played supremely well: the horns vivid and throaty, the cellos divine. But only in Schumann's Violin Concerto, with the marvellous Thomas Zehetmair as soloist, did any sense of extemporisation emerge. This sense of discovery and danger is what you need - the voyeuristic thrill of watching an intimate and unpredictable exchange between soloist, conductor, players and composer - and what, increasingly, is missing when Rattle strays from 20th-century repertoire.
Which leaves but a line to mention the voyeuristic thrill of Operatunity: The Winners' Story. Oh dear. Jane left Tesco and her husband. Denise cried in the recording studio. They both sang Puccini and EMI laughed all the way to the bank. "What I need to know," said their agent, "is whether you want to be an opera singer or a celebrity singer?" The answer will come in Channel 4's Jane and Denise Christmas Special. But that will have to wait until next week. Merry Christmas.
'Sweeney Todd': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 14 JanReuse content