American conductor John DeMain leads a perfectly paced reading of Stephen Sondheim’s dark operetta, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at The Glimmerglass Festival (seen July 22). Half the audience spontaneously rose in ovation to American mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee’s nuanced interpretation of Mrs. Lovett, the surprise author of what becomes serial crimes of passion; the rest were on their feet when bass-baritone Greer Grimsley took his final bows following the title role’s steadily unraveling descent into madness.

Captain at the helm

Maestro DeMain has conducted this gruesome—yet somehow family-friendly—work at Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and in his Wisconsin home company, Madison Opera.

Houston Grand Opera was the first legitimate opera company to stage Sweeney Todd. He now helms a top-notch cast of principals and 12 members of Glimmerglass’ Young Artist program in lesser roles doubling as a powerful chorus.

The stars are out

Greer Grimsley—America’s Wotan and, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a skin-tingling Baron Scarpia—delivered a thrilling, chilling portrayal of the tormented barber obsessed with revenge. His cavernous voice reverberates to the rafters, and his visceral acting leaves you wondering just how he keeps it all together. In an improvised post-performance interview, he spoke of the fine line he treads to be fully present in the moment emotionally, without crossing the line.

“If I were actually to cry for real,” he said, “then my acting becomes an act of selfishness; it’s all about me instead of all about the character I portray.”

As Mrs. Lovett, the mastermind of the gruesome crimes saturating the story, Luretta Bybee, the offstage Mrs. Grimsley, shares obvious chemistry with her leading man.

She deploys a rich voice with plummy middle range and clear Cockney enunciation (an oxymoron?) to deliver with spot-on timing—always a challenge in the Sondheim canon—some of the zaniest rhythmic rhymes ever conceived.

Secondary roles

American basso profundo Peter Volpe is creepy Judge Turpin, the repulsive character everyone loves to hate.

But such a voice of dark, polished ebony makes it truly hard to hate the tortured narcissist like you might want. Distinguished American mezzo-soprano Patricia Schuman, in lustrous voice, plays the Beggar Woman, a not terribly sympathetic role—until, tragically, it’s too late. Both she and Peter Volpe have often appeared onstage at the Metropolitan Opera, and a standout memory of Ms. Schuman lingersof an August 1988 concert performance of 17-year-old Mozart’s Lucio Sillaat Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, when she sang the role of Cinna.

Brilliant young artist participants

Three tenors shine in Sweeney Todd: (1) Christopher Bozeka, fittingly bedecked by Costume Designer Terese Wadden in flamboyantly sequined baby blue satin, blared like a gleaming silver trumpet in the over-the-top role of the charlatan Adolfo Pirelli; (2) Bille Bruley, as the bumbling Beadle Bamford, brandished a lighter weight voice with equal clarity; and (3) as the not-right-in-the-noggin Tobias Ragg, Nicholas Nestorak sang affectingly his aria “Nothing’s gonna harm you,” which simultaneously soothes and spooks Mrs.

Lovett, hinting at darkness in store for her.

Baritone Harry Greenleaf, encompassing a range ascending well into the upper reaches of a tenor, plays Anthony Hope, hopelessly smitten by Johanna, sung by Emily Pogorelc, a diminutive woman with a large crystalline soprano voice.

Stage masterminds

Director Christopher Alden’s visual and histrionic concept maximizes minimal sets and props, focusing attention on each precarious character’s emotional journey. Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel deserves special mention for moving the large cast, often as a single unit, in vivid slow-motion and frozen-action tableaux.

It’s hard to tell who in Sweeney Todd is the most sociopathic or psychotic,but you’d be out of your mind not to catch one of the few remainingGlimmerglass Operaperformances.

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