SF Opera's Darkly Witty 'Sweeney Todd' Chafes at Amplification

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Act II Opening with the San Francisco Opera Chorus, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett and bass-baritone Brian Mulligan as Sweeney Todd.  (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

On the surface, Stephen Sondheim's brilliant Sweeney Todd has a lot in common with your garden variety opera: a convoluted plot, tons of singing, madness, a singular obsession with revenge, class warfare, love triangles -- all capped off with a very high body count.

San Francisco Opera opened a production of this funhouse thriller about the murderous spree of a barber in Victorian London (popularized a few years ago in a Hollywood movie starring Johnny Depp) on the War Memorial Stage last weekend. It's yet another example of musical theater infiltrating the opera house worldwide. Sweeney Todd is the third Broadway-oriented production that San Francisco Opera has staged in recent years, following Porgy and Bess in 2009, and Show Boat last year. While this latest musical is both compelling and spectacular, one wonders what the presentation of musical theater pieces like this on the opera stage means for the future of the operatic art form as a whole.

Agonize all you want about whether or not Sweeney Todd is an opera or a musical, but the piece already has a venerable history in the opera house starting with a 1984 production at Houston Grand Opera under none other than San Francisco's outgoing general director David Gockley, who was at the helm in Houston at that time. The work has been performed at major houses like London's Royal Opera House and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. San Francisco Opera's co-production, first seen at the Paris Theatre du Chatelet in 2011 and subsequently at Houston Grand Opera in April, is directed again here by Lee Blakeley.

It's no surprise to see Sondheim co-opted by opera companies. Sondheim has a huge following, and for good reason, as his work is sophisticated and wry. Sweeney Todd clearly brings in a remarkably attentive audience to San Francisco Opera; there was complete silence for most of the performance last Saturday, which is not the case normally at the War Memorial Opera House.

Which brings me to my main concern about Sweeney Todd: Musical theater usually amplifies the voices of the actors to enable the words to carry over instruments like drums and electric guitar, and because the performers often work eight shows a week without a night off. Conversely, opera singers' voices are rarely amplified. They're trained to project their voices to the  back of a 3,000-seat hall. But for this production, the performers are all miked. This is no surprise as Sweeney Todd is musical rather than operatic fare. Also, the words in Sondheim are paramount, and San Francisco Opera wants to make sure that everyone can hear them properly.

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Though uncommon, microphones have shown up at the San Francisco Opera on occasion. Children and those playing ghosts are routinely miked. There are also composers, like John Adams, who appreciate the sound of the amplification. His Nixon in China at the War Memorial in 2012 used microphones to good effect. The flattening of the voices was part of the aesthetic and didn't sound like a mistake.

However, in the case of Sweeney Todd, the amplification does not serve the music well at all. The balances on the night I saw the show were off and very distracting. It isn't the sort of sound I go to the opera house to hear, and I doubt I'm alone in that. There's something very special about the human voice and the body microphones used are unwelcome mediation to be sure, especially for the world-class opera singers of the cast.

Despite the amplification issues, the performers acquitted themselves well. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe is charming as the lovesick but evilly practical Mrs. Lovett. Every gesture, movement, facial expression -- a cocked head, a shoulder shrug, a half-smile -- communicates her character's thoughts. Blythe is a consummate actress and then there's the earth shattering voice that conveys emotions with such immediacy. Meanwhile, baritone Brian Mulligan explores the full emotional despair and madness of the title role dramatically. Mulligan seems at times possessed; his fiery glare is palpable. His voice has a wonderful richness that inspires sympathy but can also crackle with anger and craziness. These singers do not need mics to be heard.

This show is likely to be the hot ticket this September for San Francisco Opera, especially given the tepid season opener Luisa Miller (a Verdi rarity and apparently for good reason). It looks like musicals are here to stay in the Bay Area's main opera house, edging out more obscure, experimental pieces. But to bring off these operas with true flair, San Francisco Opera must grapple with the technical problems of amplification, preferably before the next opening night.