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
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.
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