There are sharp, shiny things coming to the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre April 25 through May 3, when the Vancouver Opera debuts its first-ever production of Stephen Sondheim’s complex musical drama Sweeney Todd. Under the artistic guidance of stage director Kim Collier, a 5,443-kilogram moving steel bridge will traverse through changing scenes and swing over the 26-piece orchestra, all of whom have been plucked from the pit for this particular production. “We wanted to make it as visceral and delicious as possible,” explains Collier. “There was this opportunity with the orchestra on stage. Sweeney kills the bodies and they fall down to the bakeshop, and we decided we could do that right down into the orchestra pit.” Three rows of seats will also be removed from the auditorium to make way for Collier’s innovative staging. “The climax of the show is in the pulse of the audience.”
That pulse will be timed by Vancouver Opera’s own music director Jonathan Darlington, who will also be conducting the orchestra on stage—one can suspect in costume, although the maestro refused to give anything away. “It’s challenging [for the orchestra] in the sense that it’s not the usual sort of repertoire,” he offers. “When you’ve got a group of musicians on stage, it’s completely different from being in the pit and not being seen. On stage is a different vibration, a different intensity.” That too will be magnified by Darlington’s careful consideration of the text. “Sondheim is brilliant in the sense [that] the text isn’t so rich that it over-eggs the pudding. And it’s not so bare either. It has the right balance that can actually take your emotions further than any other artistic discipline.”
The music’s emotional complexity wasn’t the only item the team considered when translating Sondheim’s work to an operatic setting. “The biggest thing to consider was the primal versus civilized nature of what’s in us as humans,” says Collier. “[That’s what is] at the core of Sweeney Todd. The judge takes what he wants … It’s about what can happen to you if you’re naive. And so Sweeney is left with this massive rage in him, and grief, and anger. It’s this problem of who we are as humans. What do you do with these animal passions?”
Sweeney Todd is definitely having a zeitgeist moment, as Vancouver Opera’s general director Jim Wright agrees. “We’re right in the thick of things. This spring alone, Houston Grand Opera, Vancouver Opera, and the English National Opera in London are all doing Sweeney Todd. San Francisco is doing it next fall. It shows how the opera world of this century feels, that works like this belong in the opera house,” he says. “Because of the compositional seriousness of Sondheim’s work, we feel it belongs there. It’s about the seriousness of compositional intent.”
Intent is certainly one theme that rings throughout the production, from the characters to the technical necessities of the story, especially with the inherent demand of bodies sliding down to a second level. “You can’t do Sweeney Todd without all of the on-stage mechanics,” says Collier. “And you have to get from one location to the other. We enter in and out of the story. Frame, reframe. And I felt like the human emotions in it, the way the orchestra tells what Sweeney and the others are going through, it spills out of their humanity and into the whole orchestra.” Making it all work with so many bodies on stage has been a bit of a math puzzle for Collier, but the end result is a muscular design that really drives home the cycle of revenge, echoed by the literal spiraling properties of Collier’s metal bridge.
“Sondheim said today’s modern musicals have to challenge the audience, and that’s what he set out to do,” says Darlington. And while most musical works are seen more as entertainment, the Vancouver Opera really wants to drive home the message in Sweeney’s madness.
“We are showing how much we value this piece by who is involved,” says Wright. “We wanted to show that this is not a throwaway. It’s not filler. We are giving it all the musical oomph. This is about more than just standing and singing.” Of course he’s right—it’s about slicing too.
Sweeney Todd will be playing at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from April 25 through May 3, 2015.
Photos by Tim Matheson.