The Demon of the Opera

From a homicidal singing barber to a dramatic film score, March is filled with operatic sounds

Sweeney Todd opens Friday, March 13, at the Hult
Sweeney Todd opens Friday, March 13, at the Hult

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the peaks of Stephen Sondheim’s stellar career as America’s greatest musical theater composer, which, after multiple Tonys, Grammys, a Pulitzer and other laurels, received another boost with 2014’s 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. Even so, it’s worth catching Eugene Opera’s operatic version of the Tony-winning 1979 musical, with two performances at 7:30 pm Friday, March 13, and 2:30 pm Sunday, March 15, at the Hult Center.

Clearly, opera directors find something undeniably operatic about the dark story, set in 19th-century England, which is part revenge fantasy, part allegory of the depredations of capitalism (especially given its cannibalistic Soylent Green plot device). The Demon Barber — Todd — is driven mad by his craving to avenge his imprisonment and other injustices perpetrated by a corrupt system. The Eugene Opera’s production unleashes the full glory of Sondheim’s sinisterly beautiful score and contains choruses omitted from the movie.

The show features several of Eugene’s finest singers, along with imported guest stars, and marks another step in Eugene Opera’s recent refreshing of opera by using works created by contemporary composers. Ask Eugene Opera Managing Director Mark Beudert why his opera 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.”

The production is also dedicated to the late beloved storyteller Mark Lewis (who poses as Todd, left, in the Opera’s promo photo above); Lewis passed in December.

Speaking of operatic films, at 8 pm Thursday, March 19, Eugene Symphony hosts a concert featuring Sergei Prokofiev’s glorious score written for the 1938 film classic, Alexander Nevsky, which the composer arranged into a 40-minute cantata. The story of brave 12th-century Russians defeating German knights in battle held special resonance for a U.S.S.R. facing the threat of Nazi invasion.

Still another vocal music masterpiece is on tap 7 pm Saturday, March 21, at Central Lutheran Church (1857 Potter) when The Ensemble, a seven-member all-star vocal ensemble representing the cream of the crop of Portland choirs, performs maybe the last great work of the Renaissance: Orlando di Lasso’s The Tears of St. Peter. This show is a must for choral music fans.

At 3 pm Sunday, March 15, at United Lutheran Church (2230 Washington), Early Music fans can also enjoy historically informed keyboard master and harpsichordist Margret Gries’ intimately staged recital of music by J. S. Bach from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, the Overture in the French Style, and more. More Baroque music plus 20th-century sounds are on the program at the Oregon Guitar Trio concert 4 pm Sunday, March 15, at First United Methodist Church (1376 Olive). David Rogers, Matt Gwinup and David Kelley perform music by Jean-Baptiste Lully and Gustav Holst, Brazilian tunes, the theme to video game The Legend of Zelda and more.

Catch Pablo Luis Rivera 7:30 pm Thursday, March 12, at UO’s Aasen-Hull Hall, with Proyecto Unión, which explores Puerto Rican Bomba, an Afro-Puerto Rican drum and vocal music featuring the interaction between dancers and drums, a narrative explanation of bomba and a chance for the audience to improvise with the lead drum.

On Saturday, March 14, there’s more musical theater in the air when The Shedd’s Musical Theatre Training Academy unleashes its young artists on the immortal, jazz-influenced music of George and Ira Gershwin, in two different shows, afternoon (4:30 pm) and night (8:30 pm). The musical theater they helped invent is now reinvigorating opera, as Sweeney Todd demonstrates.

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