Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

SONDHEIM: Sweeney Todd

spacer Henschel, Bottone, DiMarzio; Stone, G. Baker, J. Best, Dwyer, Samm, Charbonneau; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, 
Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Schirmer. No texts. BR Klassik 900316 (2)

SweenToddCD

Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece of musical theater, has been a popular addition to the repertoire of numerous opera companies. This new recording, with Ulf Schirmer conducting the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and an accomplished cast composed primarily of opera singers, is a mostly very good demonstration of how well the piece can work when approached this way. Best of all is British baritone Mark Stone, whose brashness and Cockney accent give his Sweeney an unsettling volatility and streetwise swagger. These qualities highlight the class distinctions in Stone's scenes with bass-baritone Jonathan Best's steely, intense Judge Turpin, to electrifying effect. Lines such as "At the top of the hole sit a privileged few" take on new levels of resonance; Stone seems more clearly from the school of hard knocks than such great Sweeneys as Len Cariou, George Hearn, Michael Cerveris and Bryn Terfel, and his revenge lust is a different brand of visceral. In purely vocal terms, he definitely has the goods: when he launches into "There was a barber and his wife," he takes it slower than usual, but he fills the phrases completely and makes it work dramatically with a sardonic edge. When he reprises that phrase at the end, he's obviously a completely broken man, but he manages to convey this without any sacrifice of vocal quality whatsoever.

Baritone Gregg Baker is elegant and darkly opulent as Anthony; he sounds wonderful, but he's miscast. Anthony is supposed to be youthful and impetuous, but Baker is too suave and mature to pull this off. His "Johanna" soars mightily but has nothing of the male ingenue about it, and with his authoritative vocal heft, he sounds as if he could squash the Beadle under his foot when the latter orders him away. Canadian tenor Pascal Charbonneau, by contrast, is a marvelously vibrant, clarion-voiced Tobias. Charbonneau's vivid characterization is reminiscent of Ken Jennings's original, and maybe even more muscular vocally. Australian tenor Adrian Dwyer as Beadle Bamford is right on the money in "Ladies in Their Sensitivities," with a winning combination of vocal bloom in his very solid top range and obsequiousness in his characterization. The powerful Trinidadian tenor Ronald Samm, who sings with gleaming tone and ruddy baritonal colorings, is a suitably entertaining Pirelli, a charming charlatan with the right overdone Italian accent.

Among the women, Rebecca Bottone as Johanna gives a remarkably rich and appealing rendition of "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," and she spits out her words with impressive clarity in "Kiss Me," even at Schirmer's decidedly brisk tempo. Diana DiMarzio, the Beggar Woman, was imported from the 2005 Broadway revival, directed by John Doyle. DiMarzio does impressive, instantaneous transitions between vulgar and soulful, and she widens her vibrato to great effect as the character's insanity increases over the course of the show. Her last, plaintive "Hey, don't I know you, Mister" is hair-raising.

The only really weak link is American mezzo Jane Henschel, who, as Mrs. Lovett, is clearly doing her best but has no real sense of the character or the idiom. We know we're in trouble early on, when she slows down her introductory "Worst Pies in London" to a dirge as she reaches the refrain, a remarkably poor choice. It doesn't make any sense at all from the character's standpoint: she should be desperate to keep Todd in her shop, clients being a rarity, and a real customer would flee during this uncalled for indulgence.  For Henschel, the role seems to be predominantly about vocal production, with scant attention to characterization. In "A Little Priest," she finally lets herself cut loose, and she and Stone sound like they're having a good time together, trading off puns and rhymes. Her best moments come in the dialogue between verses of "Not While I'm Around"; Charbonneau really brings her to life here (and, incidentally, turns his song into a major theatrical moment).

The Münchner Rundfunkorchester — conducted with sweep, vigor and loving care by Schirmer — plays a major role in the success of this recording; it's glorious to hear Jonathan Tunick's landmark orchestrations with a full orchestra, and numerous sequences are downright thrilling because of it. The chorus, too, is in fine shape, and the German accents seem to enhance the drama of the ensemble passages. (The "City on Fire" sequence, in particular, is harrowing.) This is a live concert recording from a one-night performance celebrating the orchestra's sixtieth anniversary. There are a few memory slips from the cast members, but the sound is outstanding. spacer

JOSHUA ROSENBLUM

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4