Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Lyric Opera of Chicago. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s macabre tale of a Victorian serial killer whose victims are turned into meat pies by his baker accomplice is a musical-theater masterpiece. But though the work is operatic by Broadway standards, it isn’t opera. The deciding factor isn’t merely Wheeler’s spoken dialogue but how composer Sondheim responds to his own lyrics: with insistent patter-song rhythms well suited to the musical-theater stage. Unfortunately the huge voices and sprawling size of a grand opera auditorium often swallow up the words and their dramatic subtext.
Director Neil Armfield’s production, conducted by Broadway veteran Paul Gemignani, features a dark, imaginative gray-and-black visual scheme marked by looming shadows and Gorey-grotesque makeup. Bryn Terfel’s rumbling bass brings a volcanic power to Sweeney’s melodies, and his duets with supporting players Timothy Nolen and Nathan Gunn showcase the richness of Sondheim’s contrapuntal writing for men. But as Sweeney’s madness becomes more violent, Terfel’s hammy posturing seems exaggerated rather than emotionally extreme. Despite some good comic moments, Judith Christin as the baker Mrs. Lovett is dwarfed by Terfel’s vocal and physical presence, and she has trouble keeping up with her words in the fast-moving showstopper “A Little Priest.” This production might make a nice change of pace for operagoers, but it lacks the horror and pathos of other more intimate (and less pricey) Sweeney Todds I’ve seen.