Two major lyric theatre productions opened in the West End last week less than two hundred yards apart. One was an operatic triumph, the other under-nourished and frustrating . But the operatic coup of the month was a classsic musical at the Adelphi and the disappointment was the latest commission from the Royal Opera House. So why am I still having flashbacks to the grand guignol of Sweeney Todd while Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune is already fading from my memory?
I have known Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece for almost a quarter of a century. I have watched it three times on stage and once on video. I have seen it played grandly operatic and frighteningly intimate. At the Adelphi last week I saw something that was almost the perfect fusion of the two. My first encounter with the demon barber of Fleet Street was in Hal Prince’s Broadway premiere of 1979. It was the most elaborate of all its stagings and after I saw the Channel 13 relay in the mid 1980s, I bought and broadcast it on BBC Television. The barest and most stripped back version was Declan Donellan’s Cottesloe production where Alun Armstrong’s silent psychotic slit throats only a few feet from the front row of the audience. And surprisingly the most operatic was not the Royal Opera revival starring Sir Thomas Allen and Felicity Palmer but Jonathan Kent’s recent transfer from Chichester which opened a few days ago in the Strand. I am not sure whether I agree with those critics who considered it the finest of all Sweeneys. I cannot forget the genuine terror which I experienced at the Cottesloe where Donellan gave us nowhere to hide and brought Sweeney’s monomania into bloody close-up. But Jonathan Kent and Michael Ball run it a very close second.
Fifteen years ago, when I tried to acquire the rights for English National Opera, I learned that Sondheim had granted them to the Cottelsoe. He was eager to return the work to its intimate roots in Christopher Bond’s Stratford East melodrama. I was disappointed but had to admit that Sondheim was almost certainly right. Jonathan Kent’s achievement is to retain the harsh Brechtian austerity of the original play but to allow it to spread into the deepest recesses of the Adelphi stage. A substantial West End size chorus and company of supporting actors evoke a dysfunctional London underworld where poverty, madness, predatory toffs and rough sleepers coexist in nightmare proximity. Wozzek meets The Rake’s Progress. Far from distracting from the central performances, the supporting cast throw Ball’s deranged barber and Imelda Staunton’s infatuated and driven pie-maker into vivid relief. Ball’s transformation from cuddly comic to pallid psycho has attracted most of the critical attention. But Staunton’s subtle balancing act between motherly affection, pragmatism and amoral greed is even more impressive. Anyone who has seen her in Ayckbourn and Mike Leigh already knows her versality. As Mrs Lovett she employs every weapon in her dramatic armoury and also sings up a storm wherever required. As the run is limited, if you haven’t yet seen Sweeney rush to reserve a seat for music theatre at its most chilling.
How sad that Judith Weir, who is one of our most gifted operatic composers, should fall so far short. I have known her work ever since I broadcast A Night at the Chinese Opera on BBC Television. I commissioned a short music drama on film from her a couple of years later and a much more substantial work Blond Ekbert for ENO in the 1990s. In all of them she demonstrated a sure theatrical touch, haunting harmonies and a talent for the unpredictable and disorientating. All of these are missing from Miss Fortune. Her modernised Sicilian folk tale about a rich girl who falls on hard times is oddly anorexic. The characters are all stereotypes. The graph of the plot from comfort to poverty to unexpected wealth to riches rejected for love is the stuff of Mills and Boon rather than myth. I will pass over the weird misjudgement of accompanying the action with a group of African-Caribbean break-dancers who trash the set in a tasteless echo of last summer’s riots. I’ll assume that this naivety was Covent Garden’s rather than Weir’s. The score is equally thin gruel and rarely exploits the resources of the full Covent Garden orchestra. Perhaps it would have fared better in the cramped spaces of the Linbury but unlike Sweeney, Miss Fortune simply doesn’t have the musical material to fill two hours in a grand theatre. If you want to hear Judith Weir at her considerable best, go to the recordings of Chinese Opera or The Vanishing Bridegroom. If you wish to be frightened or haunted, try the second act of Blond Ekbert. But for real terror and pity, you are better off with Sondheim.