English National Opera have previously presented Sondheim - in 1987 it offered the London premiere of Pacific Overtures - and they have previously presented musicals, to mixed success, from On the Town (hit) and Candide (miss) to Kismet (disastrous).
Now, launching a new partnership with the GradeLinnit Company to produce musicals more regularly, they start at the very top of the musical-as-opera tree with Sweeney Todd, Sondheim and Wheeler's 1979 Broadway masterwork that has already become an opera house and concert staple: I've previously seen Sweeney Todd presented at both the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and at New York City Opera.
But I've never seen it presented with such simultaneously operatically faithful yet theatrical combustible energy. Faced with doing a musical, opera companies can over-sing but under-play them; but here the balances are just right, in every sense, for a show that is about a man who becomes chronically unbalanced in his deadly pursuit for revenge.
They've also wheeled out the biggest operatic name on the UK star roster for the occasion: Bryn Terfel, reprising a role he previously gave at the Royal Festival Hall in a 2007 concert staging, was born to play this role, and he sings it with an unbridled passion and rage that's thrilling to hear. And he's ideally partnered by Emma Thompson - who in her pre-movie star days made a huge splash in the West End's Me and My Girl in the mid-80s - who offsets his determined severity with a practical comic personality that brings joy to this otherwise relentlessly bleak and mirthless story.
Around them director Lonny Price has refreshingly gone musical theatre rather than opera, albeit with some of the very best voices to be heard in musical theatre anywhere. The astonishing Philip Quast - still the world's best-ever Javert in Les Miserables, from the 10th anniversary concert performance of that show at the Royal Albert Hall - brings a dark, disturbing severity to Judge Turpin, while Alex Gaumond is his comic foil Beadle Bamford. John Owen-Jones, a long-term occupier of such roles as Valjean in Les Miserables and the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, is also luxury casting as the operatically-inclined fake Italian barber Pirelli. Rosalie Craig, one of our fastest rising new generation of musical theatre stars, is breathtaking as the Beggar Woman.
There are also terrific contributions from Katie Hall, Matthew Seadon-Young and Jack North in the juvenile roles; and a stirring chorus of 30 actors that are no less thrilling.
This is the second Sweeney Todd I've seen in London in as many weeks, after the pie shop one on Shaftesbury Avenue, and it couldn't be more different. Next to the shrunken intensity of that version - which had just eight actors and three musicians - this is much more expansive, with nearly 40 actors and over 60 onstage musicians. I wouldn't want to have missed either for the world, and honestly couldn't choose between them in terms of which I'd prefer to see.
"[Emma Thompson] makes a terrific Mrs Lovett, hitting just the right balance between endearing naivete and ruthless amorality, as well as singing meticulously and without affectation. Her flights of fancy in “By the sea” become irresistible a comic tour de force."
Rupert Christiansen for The Telegraph
"It remains, however, an exceptional evening in which there is first-rate singing from Katie Hall as Johanna, Matthew Seadon-Young as her ardent wooer and Philip Quast as the villainous Judge Turpin who, we are left in no doubt, achieves a sexual climax during his self-flagellation."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"I’ve seen the story’s demonic horrors and air of Victorian sensationalism more fully realised. But there is plenty to savour — Sondheim’s mixture of gore, comedy and romance is intoxicating."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard