Review: “Sweeney Todd” by Opera Notre Dame

Last weekend, my friend Chris and I drove up to South Bend to meet another cherished friend’s brother.  Our friend lives in Australia but his brother divides his time between Australia, Greece, Prague, Italy…and Indiana.  The brother is opera conductor John Apeitos.  It was such a treat to meet him and to live in his world for a little while!

Every spring John conducts a show for Opera Notre Dame. Students and faculty from Notre Dame University participate but so do selected members of the local community.  A woman that happened to chat with me in the lobby said she was there because her hairdresser’s son was in the show. A lead singer’s fraternity brothers (I assume) sat behind me and grunted in secret code whenever their brother finished a solo. One brother had even worn a suit coat over his shorts for the occasion.  I worried at first that they would be disrespectful of the performers and the other audience members, but it wasn’t like that.  Their behavior was funny AND appreciative. I relaxed when I realized that they were engaged in the show and managing to call attention to themselves without detracting from anyone else’s enjoyment.

As far as the show itself went, I bet I would have enjoyed whatever piece Opera Notre Dame had selected to perform this year, but as it happens, this year’s opera was actually a sort of hybrid opera/musical theatre piece that I had heard a lot about but never actually seen.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

This “musical thriller” by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler is one of those shows that are on every live theatre junkie’s bucket list. I had never even seen the movie version, so it was a treat to see and hear a fully staged version, especially one as beautifully done as this one.

Director Mark Beudert, in his curtain talk, warned us that Stephen Sondheim required them to use (I think it was) a steam boat whistle. He warned us that it was very loud “and it is not our fault.”

We all laughed then, but I jumped a mile every time that sucker blew during the show, which was usually – but not always – when yet another character was getting whacked under the mad barber’s razor.

However, the rest of the sounds – the music performed by the orchestra and vocalists under John Apeitos’ direction – were a collective pleasure. I especially admired Zachary Angus in the title role of an already insane man crazed further with grief, Lina Delmastro as Mrs. Lovett, his twisted would-be lover/enabler, and Joseph Paggi as Anthony Hope, the sailor smitten with Sweeney Todd’s daughter. Their singing sounded full and rich and spot on to my admittedly uneducated ear. I completely bought the acted aspects of their portrayals, too.

Several times during the show I snuck glances at the orchestra pit, where John was conducting with joy and specificity.  He was a pleasure to watch.

The visual of the show overall was appropriately dark, deceptively simple.  I hope I don’t sound twisted myself for saying that I loved the palette of bruise colors in Peter Beudert’s set design. I also admired the smoothness of the scene transitions and C. Kenneth Cole’s deliciously helpful lighting design. (Technical director: Phil Patnaude.  Stage manager: Terry Dawson.)

My friend Chris noticed that Lynn Holbrook’s costume designs changed subtly from modern clothes to period clothes over the first few numbers, pulling us back in time.  I wonder if that costume design, like the steam whistle, is part of every Sweeney Todd production or unique to this one.

Leana Polzonetti’s choreography made everyone look good. My favorite dance was the cumulative one where dancer after dancer joined in the “slicing” pattern until the stage was filled with a background of paradoxically systematic mayhem, just like the murders and cannibalism going on downstage.

Speaking of Cannibalism…

If I were an actor-vocalist, I think the role of Mrs. Lovett would be on my list of dream roles because there is so much complexity to explore there.   She began putting cats and rats or whatever in her pies because she was on her own and couldn’t afford more acceptable meat to keep her pie-making business going, and she lusted after Sweeney Todd even before he was sent to prison.  Now he’s back, and she wants so much to be… loved by him? Rescued from poverty by him? Her yearning is complex, and so strong that she is willing to lie to him and manipulate him and add his victims to her pies to get them out of the way.

Chris told me this role was played by Angela Lansbury on Broadway and by Helena Bonham Carter in the movie.  I can hardly imagine two more different actresses!  In Opera Notre Dame’s production, Lina Delmastro was different from either of them.  She gave Mrs. L. her own special (pardon the expression) sauciness.

I got to meet Lina, too, at the party in John’s honor later that night.  She told me that because of the kind of singer she is (mezzo soprano?), she usually plays boy parts in opera.  I am glad I got to see and hear her in this female role.

The Party in John’s Honor or, Opera around the Piano at Charles’ House

John had invited Chris and me to his friend Charles’ home for a party after the show.  Charles lives in a gorgeous, historically significant home on a street in South Bend that reminded me of North Meridian Street in Indianapolis.

I didn’t realize it ahead of time, but Charles hosts this party in John’s honor every year.  So…there were a gazillion people there to see John.  Chris and I introduced ourselves and chatted for a bit, then got out of the way so that other people could get a chance to talk with him, too.

After a while, though, John sat down at the piano…and his former and current opera students took turns singing!

I love it when I go to a theatre party and people gather around the piano to sing show tunes or whatever, but this was an intimate treat that went beyond that. This was trained opera singers sharing their gifts six feet away from me!  It wasn’t just an emotional or artistic force – although it was both of those, too – it was a physical force.  I felt that music in my molecules.

Those talented opera singers were singing for the pleasure of it, of course, and to honor their teacher.  They were not singing to be reviewed.  And while I was with them, I didn’t think about writing about them. I just kept breathing and listening and thinking how lucky I was to be there.

Still…I wish I had gotten the names of the singers that particularly impressed me.  Just for myself, I would like their names so that I can follow their careers.

Who was that little blond woman, for example, that sang like an angel from atop very high heels? And who were the other two splendid tenors that made me gasp with laughter and pleasure when they sang the “O solo mio” song together with Jay Morrissey (more about him in a moment) when John Apeitos asked them to on a whim? And who was the African-American man that sang the rich duet from “Porgy and Bess” with Tamra Garrett? (More about her in a moment, too.)  If anyone that happens to read this blog post could let me know these people’s names, I would very much appreciate it!

Towards the end of the party, after many people had left and things were winding down, I did get to speak to the two singers that had actually made me cry there in Charles’ living room.

Bliss and Catharsis

One of the songs that Tamra Garrett sang sounded familiar to me.  I think it was a song that Nicholas Cage’s character listens to on his record player in the movie “Moonstruck.” (So does that mean it was from “La Boheme?”?) In any case, listening to her sing it, I found myself tearing up to the point where a tear or two rolled down my cheek and I needed to dig around in my handbag to find a tissue after the song ended.  A woman standing near me smiled with understanding.

“It’s really something, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes,” I said, feeling a little foolish. “I expected to enjoy it.  I didn’t expect to be so moved!”

I should tell you that this was not my first time hearing live opera, or even being moved to tears by it.  However, the other times I was sitting in the dark and there weren’t people laughing and talking and drinking cocktails nearby.

When I met Tamra later, she said that she and the man that sang the duet with her are both students at IUSB (Indiana University-South Bend.) She said they would be having a recital soon. I don’t know that I will be able to get back up to South Bend for their recital, but I’m sure it will be another treat.

Tamra also sang “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess.”  That is one opera song that I find myself singing around the house for the fun of it, but I sing it conversationally, i.e. – low on the scale.  For an official performance, I guess it supposed to be sung very high.  At any rate, that is how Tamra sang it: at the seemingly impossible, super-humanly high pitch that opera requires sometimes.  And here’s the thing: it didn’t sound shrill or squawky the way people do when they’re making fun of opera (or, I guess, when they are trying to do it well but can’t.)   There was an exquisite expressiveness and control in Tamra’s voice.  I could hear the nuances in her tone.  It was overwhelming and maybe it made glasses break in the kitchen or whatever, but it was not painful, if that makes sense.  I thought, “Oh, THIS is what all the training is for! To make the high notes sound like THIS!”

(I know I sound like an idiot here. Oh, well.)

A little later in the evening, after I had dried my sincere but lady-like Moonstruck/Pretty Woman tears, a man sang something that put me into a full-on messy weep.  I gave up trying to use a tissue, clapped a hand over my mouth and concentrated on not sobbing out loud while still giving myself up to his singing.  I can’t tell you what song he was singing or even what it was about.  The yearning and passion in it just…got to me.

Later I found out that that man’s name is Jay Morrissey.  He is now a professional opera tenor based in Chicago but he took lessons from John Apeitos at one time.

He sang several more pieces in Charles’ living room that night and I felt lucky to hear every single one of them.

Back to Indianapolis…But Next Year?

Chris and I both hope to turn our inaugural road trip to South Bend to see and hear John Apeitos and his musicians into a yearly tradition if we can. I can’t speak for how Chris feels right this minute,  but here it is a week later and I am still “high” from the pleasure of this year’s trip.

After this wonderful reminder of how much I enjoy opera, I wish I could have made it to one of the two performances of the Indianapolis Opera’s production of “Faust” this weekend.  I will just have to keep trying to get to another of their shows.  I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I got to preview their “Carmen.”

The relatively new Intimate Opera of Indianapolis is also doing interesting things. I enjoyed their “Impressario” show in the 2011 Indy Fringe Festival but didn’t have time to blog about it.

If I lived in South Bend, I would be checking out what other shows are happening in Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. The space in which we saw “Sweeney Todd” was both elegant and intimate.

‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

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