Classical Music: The Demon Barber: a suitable case for Occam's razor

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Opera or musical? That is the question. But does it really matter?

David Benedict licks his lips at the bloodthirsty delights of Stephen Sondheim's `Sweeney Todd', opening tomorrow in a new staging by Opera North.

Whichever way you slice it - and, believe me, this show has a whole lot of slicing - the gloriously gory Sweeney Todd is a masterpiece. Stephen Sondheim's musical about the demon barber of Fleet Street who seeks vengeance for the death of his wife, and pairs up with Mrs Lovett who makes meat pies out of his victims, is an audacious, astonishing work that more than lives up to its subtitle: "A Musical Thriller".

Reviewing the triumphant 1979 premiere in the New York Post, the veteran drama critic Clive Barnes wrote, "If you have any interest in musical theatre, you must see Sweeney Todd. It is not just next month's cocktail party conversation - it will be talked about for years."

He could have set up as a clairvoyant. Originally presented on Broadway with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, and then at Drury Lane with Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock, the show has since been seen around the world. Britain has hosted several small-scale revivals, from London's Half Moon Theatre to the hit National Theatre production. Long before tomorrow night's Opera North premiere it has had widespread success in opera houses across America, and even a recent opera production in Catalan (which Sondheim himself particularly admired and which has been preserved on disc).

It's hardly surprising to find opera companies adopting this unique piece. By the composer's own calculation, roughly 80 per cent of the material is sung, and there is underscoring beneath most of the dialogue scenes. All of which has led to the debate that rages loud and long among musical theatre academics: is it really a musical? Surely it's an opera?

Relying on the words of an author is a dangerous game. It's usually safer to trust the piece rather than its progenitor, but Sondheim's answer to the question is illuminating. He was very clear on the subject when it was raised by the composer/ writer/ director Jeremy Sams at a public debate at the National in 1993. "I've always defined opera as anything done in an opera house in front of an opera audience. It's the audience's expectations that define the performance. They generally come to hear singers, not to see plots. People who go to musical theatre go to hear songs, or sometimes to see the stars, and are interested in the story. Opera audiences generally are not."

Four years on, it's clear that Sams agrees with him. "It is what it is," he says, sternly. He believes the spurious business of classification panders to the popular prejudice that venerates opera and denigrates musicals. "If you think that opera is highbrow and musicals are lowbrow, it shows you know little or nothing about either." However, pressed to define its place within the mainstream, he opts for the operatic tradition, placing it alongside the three masterpieces of the century: Wozzeck, Porgy and Bess and Peter Grimes. He also points out that all four works are about exactly the same thing: men who are outcasts in society who commit murders. "They're all also plainly charismatic figures who don't listen." He's right. When Mrs Lovett tries to soothe Sweeney by singing "Wait", the uneasy orchestral writing reveals his worries beneath his preoccupied silence.

David McVicar, director of Opera North's new production, similarly dislikes the business of classification but goes on to argue that it's definitely a musical. "It works in a different way. The stage action dictates what the players in the pit must do. In opera I always feel that the musical action dictates to the stage." He and his conductor, James Holmes, have had the luxury of taking a year to assemble their dream cast. They held a trump card in the shape of 36 singers from the highly prized Opera North chorus, which allows the usually scaled-down choral writing to be given full flower, but their choices for the principals will surprise supporters of both sides of the critical divide. Steven Page, a formidable Don Giovanni, sings Sweeney, opposite musicals specialist Beverley Klein as Mrs Lovett.

Klein welcomes the opportunity of performing with Jonathan Tunick's pellucid, full-sized orchestration for 30-odd players without the horribly distancing effect of amplification that besets most modern musical productions. Having just done the first full on-stage rehearsal, she's fully aware of the demands that makes. "The power of that sound means you can't turn upstage, and if you throw away a joke, the audience may not hear the punch-line. But there is so much to be gained from the purity of the sound, the clarity and intensity of an acoustic performance."

The repertory schedule, which allows days off between performances, also comes as a relief to a singing actress used to doing eight shows a week. None the less, the work's operatic scale doesn't include recitative with spaced-out chords allowing the singers to wind up for big arias, and she and Page are rarely off-stage.

It's "a big sing", something that gives the enthusiastic Page pause. "If I had looked at it in terms of the notes alone, I would have had second thoughts," he admits. "If all that were Mozart, I wouldn't have done it."

Mozart requires sustained singing through a given word. With Sondheim, however, as with the Stravinsky or Britten roles that Page regularly sings, the emphasis is more textual. "Text is everything in this piece," agrees McVicar, vehemently. "Its demands are completely specific. You simply cannot generalise the emotions and, without real definition on the words, it collapses."

It's something Holmes has concentrated on. "You do have to learn to sing slightly differently with something like this, to show the internal clarity." Opera singers are often accused of concentrating solely on producing sound through the vowels and letting the consonants go hang, a style that simply doesn't work with Sondheim's intricacies. "They have to adopt a different vowel-to-consonant ratio," he says, tactfully.

All of which suggests that, whichever way you play (or sing) it, the opera vs musical argument is simply a red herring. Even if you insist on mounting the barricades over it, the sheer visceral thrill of the last 20minutes of Act 1 silences debate. This alone catapults the work to classic status. The brilliantly written dramatic quartet dovetailing and uniting the ingenue plot with that of the villainous judge and beadle - "good enough to be mentioned in the same sentence as the great quartet from Rigoletto", as one distinguished opera critic has put it - is swiftly followed by a nail-biting romantic duet between the murderous Sweeney and his long-dreamed-of victim. This builds inexorably into Sweeney's terrifying "Epiphany" revenge aria. Before he or the audience have time to recover their senses, his demented partner-in-crime, Mrs Lovett, launches into a lip-smacking comic waltz, a dastardly patter-song duet designed to solve her personal meat crisis.

Opera North has an enviable record in works well beyond the standard repertoire, from Mozart's early La Finta Giardiniera to their recent success with Martinu's Julietta, via the American classic Showboat. If, as Sondheim would wish, their loyal audiences cast aside expectations and just respond to the musical and theatrical wonders of Sweeney Todd, there may be all manner of further treats in store - no matter how academics choose to describe them.

`Sweeney Todd' opens tomorrow at the Grand Theatre, Leeds (0113-245 9351) and then tours.