No matter how you slice it - so to speak - Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd ranks among the greatest American operas. Yes, operas.
Call it a bona-fide Broadway musical, too, if you want, but you can't miss the operatic way the work's music and drama aim so potently and perfectly for the jugular. No wonder many opera companies and artists have been drawn to Sweeney Todd since its premiere in 1979.
Add the Wolf Trap Opera Company in Vienna, Va., to that list. The troupe unveiled a provocative production of the Sondheim classic over the weekend that updates the action from a Victorian milieu to a modern (or post-modern), impersonal world designed by Erhard Rom.
The plot remains the same - framed convict Todd returns to his old London haunts and his tonsorial profession with a vengeance; a crude pie-baker becomes his accomplice in a business that is ever so unsavory.
This staging takes full advantage of the intimacy of the 382-seat Barns at Wolf Trap. With the action close-in (including a handy-dandy meat grinder downstage so the audience can't miss a strand of the reddish ooze from assorted body parts earmarked for Mrs. Lovett's pies), and with no need for amplification (an anti-operatic necessity at many theaters), the richly layered textures of Sweeney Todd register strongly.
Although not uniformly convincing at adopting the multiclass British accents or enunciating cleanly, the singers get inside the characters who ignite this volatile mix of horror and black comedy.
Matt Boehler tellingly conveys Todd's pain and festering madness. His voice could use more heft and roundness, but his singing is alive with nuance. Same for Audrey Babcock's deftly drawn Mrs. Lovett. Javier Abreu, as the naive Tobias, reveals a sweet tenor that can milk the full expressive warmth of "Not While I'm Around."
Alexander Tall's warmly sung Anthony, Jason Hardy's sturdy Judge Turpin, Maureen McKay's bright Johanna and Nicholas Phan's vivid Pirelli add much to the show, which is nearly stolen a couple of times by Jason Ferrante. He doesn't make the most fearsome Beadle imaginable, but his singing - some of it in a delicious falsetto - has commanding style.
James Lowe conducts the continually brilliant, inventive score with authority and sensitivity, and gets an attentive response from the orchestra.
Director Joe Banno has the action unfolding seamlessly, creating vivid stage pictures along the way, sometimes just by the way he places Greek chorus-like onlookers into the picture. Even the cliche of little doors opening, a la Laugh-In, to let characters appear for a comment or visual aid works effectively.
Above all, Banno and designer Rom, along with Timm Burrow (costumes) and Nancy Schertler (lighting), intensify the dark truths of human nature and social inequities at the heart of Sweeney Todd, truths that will always cut close to the bone.
The production, which runs through Sunday, is sold out. For possible ticket turn-backs, call 703-255-1868.
No one knows whether there will be audiences for classical music a generation or so hence, but there will certainly be an awful lot of folks who can perform it - and superbly.
For reassurance on that point, check out the National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. More than 700 applicants, ages 18 to 28, sought entry into this year's institute orchestra, which undergoes intensive career preparation in master classes led by some of the orchestra world's top players and concerts with noted conductors.
Roberto Minczuk, former associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic, put the ensemble through its paces Saturday night. He drew from the young musicians confident, expressive accounts of Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel and Copland's Appalachian Spring. In Brahms' Symphony No. 2, the technical level proved less consistent, but the spirit behind the playing remained compelling.
David Robertson, music director of the Saint Louis Symphony, conducts the orchestra in a Sibelius-Boulez-Stravinksy program Saturday night. For tickets, call 301-405-2787.