Preview: Eugene Opera’s Sweeney Todd

Sondheim classic goes from musical to movie to opera.

A version of this story originally appeared in Eugene Weekly.

Ask Eugene Opera managing director Mark Beudert why his opera company is doing a Broadway musical, and he talks about another piece “that didn’t start out in an opera house, that was new and different, kind of edgy in 1875. That work of art is Carmen. Within 25 years, it had been taken over by full sized opera companies.”

Beudert, who’s reinvigorated Oregon opera by staging contemporary works like Dead Man Walking and Nixon in China, is doing the same thing with his new production of Sweeney Todd, which runs March 13 and 15 at Eugene’s  Hult Center.

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The Tony Award winning 1979 musical is regarded as one of the peaks of Stephen Sondheim’s stellar career as America’s greatest music theater composer, which after multiple Tonys, Grammys, a Pulitzer and other laurels, received still another boost with last year’s popular film version of his musical Into the Woods.

You may have seen the film adaptation of Sweeney, too, or any of the productions staged around town over the years, or even one of the touring productions, including a stripped down one in which the actors played their own instruments. But there is something undeniably operatic about the story, set in 19th century England, which is part revenge fantasy, part allegory of the depredations of capitalism (especially given its Soylent Green plot device). The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is determined to avenge his unjust imprisonment and other injustices perpetrated by a corrupt system.

Even if you’ve seen the original, Beudert explains, EO’s new operatic version (which follows other productions by major companies including New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Royal Opera) unleashes the full glory of Sondheim’s darkly beautiful score, and contains choruses omitted from the movie.

“The music responds to the same technique we use in opera,” says Beudert, who saw the original Broadway production in New York and an operatic version in London. “The style is somewhat different but not markedly so, so I see this piece making the same sort of transition Carmen did. I think it can breathe in a larger environment.”

And like the politically charged Carmen,  Sweeney Todd is especially relevant to audiences who live in the time when it was written. Beudert knows that opera must evolve with its culture. “It’s an exciting time” for opera, he says. “When I was a boy, the Met never did anything outside the core repertoire — no Baroque opera, no modern pieces, only Aida, Boheme and Carmen. But lyric theater is a living tradition. People are much more aware of everything now, and this is enabling us to look into reach out to the community in all kinds of ways that the Met wouldn’t have done.“

That includes sponsoring several events throughout the community that illuminate and deepen the Sweeney Todd experience, including this month’s Eugene Public Library exhibit about Sondheim’s sparkling career, a March 7  talk by Louisiana State University prof and Victorian lit expert Sharon Weltman that places Sweeney in historical context (she’ll also speak at LCC March 10 and the UO March 11, including another showing of the 1936 film), a March 6 First Friday Artwalk (co-hosted by Beudert) that includes Sweeney themes, and this weekend’s Bijou Metro screenings of  the film of the musical that vaulted Sondheim to fame as a lyricist: West Side Story.

Eugene Opera presents Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, starring Christopher Burchett as Sweeney Todd, Anne Allgood as Mrs. Lovett, and Jake Gardner as Judge Turpin, at 7:30 p.m. on March 13, 2015, and 2:30 p.m. on March 15, 2015, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets available online and at the Hult Center Box office.

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