Bryn Terfel, Emma Thompson in Sondheim’s “Sweeney”

Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, NY; March 5, 2014—A limited run (five performances) of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, led by Alan Gilbert with the New York Philharmonic, practically turned out to be the season’s hottest operatic ticket so far. Billed as a staged performance, albeit in Avery Fisher Hall, director Lonny Price, an old hand at Sondheim, pulled a fast one on the audience: During the opening “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, with the orchestra on stage, empty chairs behind, and music stands in front, soloists and chorus entered; the ladies in gowns, men in tuxes—with scores in hand—took their places.

As the ballad ended, the soloists slammed their scores to the floor, toppled their music stands, tore the sleeves off their gowns and jackets, and removed black ties. A back curtain parted to uncover a graffiti-filled mural; the lighting shifted to murk, projections of huge bloody handprints were revealed, and the singers walked about freely—through, behind, and in front of the orchestra, and even among the audience. Played both for its pitch-dark humor and morbidity, it worked splendidly most of the time, although certain key moments had to be sacrificed: Todd’s victims slouched off-stage after their throat-slashing, for instance, and the effect was weak. Nonetheless, Sondheim’s Grand Guignol romp was beautifully served.

The great Bryn Terfel sang the murderous, vengeful Sweeney. His hulking, menacing presence—at times purposefully still and watchful—was matched by his glorious sound: huge at both ends, capable of intoning a long, high line tenderly when singing about Johanna, and appropriately stopping the show at the close of “My friends” with the roared line “At last my arm is complete again!” (The singers were miked, all equally.) But all ears—and eyes—were on Mrs Lovett, the perverse pie-maker: two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson was making her New York Philharmonic debut and singing on stage for the first time since 1985. Could she do it?

Indeed, yes: The role is awkwardly written, almost as if to be sung by a flawed voice. The register breaks were clumsy at first, but after settling in, Thompson proved herself as fine a “belter” as she was in her higher, more “classical” sound. Her Mrs Lovett was complicated, by turns vulgar and mock-fancy, kicking away cockroaches from her pies, racing back and forth, shaving Todd seductively during “By the sea”, flirting with Alan Gilbert, and even stealing a fur wrap from an audience member during Act 2. A great actress at her peak.

The rest of the cast was from musical theater: Jay Armstrong Johnson’s beautiful, boyish tenor was ideal as Anthony; Erin Mackay’s Johanna had the needed innocence without being tiny; Philip Quast’s Judge Turpin was terrifying both in its evil and self-loathing. The role of Tobias was taken by baby-faced Kyle Brenn; Jeff Blumenkrantz had an unusual take on The Beadle—here he was snakelike. Christian Borle’s Pirelli was scene-stealing. And while the pivotal role of the Beggar Woman was marked with a question-mark in the program, squeals of delight greeted Audra Macdonald in the part. I suspect we’ll never hear it sung so well again. (One of the performances is being recorded for telecast with Macdonald as the hostess/announcer; one assumes someone else will sing the part.)

The glory that is the New York Philharmonic, playing Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration, makes you realize just how great this score is; a large chorus added to its grandeur. Bernadette Peters, Barbara Cook, and yes, Stephen Sondheim were in the audience (he was brought on stage for a curtain call). All seemed overjoyed by Gilbert’s reading and the superb work of the cast.