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CLASSICAL  July 2001

CLASSICAL July 2001

Subject:

Byron Belt on the Sondheim-Opera Conundrum

From:

Janos Gereben <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 23 Jul 2001 15:13:43 -0700

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   CRITIC AT LARGE by Byron Belt
   [Stellar revivals of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" renew
   discussions of what is opera, and do the differences really matter?]

   SAN FRANCISCO - The question of just what makes a stage work with
   music an "opera" has stimulated commentary and arguments since the
   premiere in 1607 of Claudio Monteverdi's "Orfeo," which he termed a
   "dramma per musica" - a drama with music.

   The Monteverdi definition is pretty all-encompassing, which has helped
   keep the subject alive for four centuries.  In our time, the most
   often discussed opera-vs.-Broadway musical has been George Gershwin's
   "Porgy and Bess."

   Years ago, when the Houston Grand Opera production of "Porgy" came to
   Broadway, the news media was split concerning whether the show should
   be reviewed by a drama or a music critic.

   In a splurge of generosity - and possibly to generate some spirited
   controversy - the New York/New Jersey Newhouse newspapers assigned
   both its distinguished drama critic, the late Bill Raidy, and this
   writer to cover the premiere.  There were no special rules, no
   restrictions and no discussions before or during the performance.

   In an unintentional switch, Raidy proclaimed the Gershwin "America's
   greatest opera," while I stated my continuing belief that it is great,
   indeed, but not an opera as we understand the form.

   That the discussion is ongoing and re-ignited every time "Porgy" is
   produced by the Met and other opera companies has now been augmented
   by the claims by many that the bulk of the musical compositions of
   Sondheim are something more than musicals, and quite possibly should
   be considered to be operas.

   The composer himself has said in relation to the 70th birthday concert
   staging of "Sweeney Todd" by the New York Philharmonic, followed here
   as part of the San Francisco Symphony's "Summer in the City Pops
   Concerts," that he is indifferent as to what people decide to call
   his works.

   Sondheim noted that "I have often said an opera is something that's
   performed in an opera house, in front of an opera audience - that's
   what distinguishes it."

   Continuing his discussion with the press here, Sondheim said "If I
   had to label 'Sweeney Todd,' I would say it is an operetta, a black,
   a dark operetta.  I just find labelling unimportant and uninteresting.
   If you want to call it an opera, fine; it's certainly not about
   inventing a new form, its just (that) content dictates form."

   Other than the quality of the work itself, what has spurred renewed
   interest in "Sweeney Todd" and the possibility that it might be one
   of the great American operas, is the sheer inventiveness and quality
   of the staged concert presentations at Lincoln Center and here.

   Crucial ingredients were the same in both cities.  The dominant stars
   were George Hearn in the title role and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett,
   the baker of "The Worst Pies in London," the quality of which seems
   to go up when she discovers she can make good use of the bodies of
   those destroyed by "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," as Todd is
   described in the sub-title.

   The cast was outstanding in every instance.Included were the lovely
   soprano of Lisa Vroman, the tenor of John Aler and the darker voices
   of Davis Gaines, Timothy Nolen, Stanford Olsen, among those who stood
   out most vividly.

   Transforming orchestra stages into theatrical space was stunningly
   achieved by director Lonny Price and the lighting genius of Greg
   Brunton.  Andrew Litton conducted the New York Philharmonic and
   chorus, while Rob Fisher led the San Francisco Symphony and Vance
   George's superb chorus.

   For readers who want to consider and enjoy "Sweeney Todd," the New
   York performance is available on the Philharmonic's own CD label,
   and the performances here were taped by EMK Productions for television
   and home video.

   While the sound CDs are available now, the film version may be worth
   the wait - especially for those who wish to consider the matter of
   opera and/or musical comedy.

Janos Gereben/SF
[log in to unmask]

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