Stephen Sondheim's ''Sweeney Todd'' is not a show to all tastes, but it has always had its partisans. Tops on that list is Beverly Sills, who said from the first time she saw the show that it really belonged in an opera house. The Houston Grand Opera gave ''Sweeney'' its first viewing in the operatic milieu in June, and now it is at the New York City Opera, with seven more performances for Nov. 14-18.
Expectations here were high. There was the hope that Mr. Sondheim would take his show, recast it for full operatic voices, give some of the pivotal scenes a real operatic build to a climax, and have his orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, spice up the scoring. The story of the revenge by a barber, Benjamin Barker - imprisoned by a lecherous judge with designs on Barker's wife - is gory. It is couched in a brutal framework of caustic music in the same genre as Kurt Weill's Brechtian works. Sondheim is at his most brilliant in his lyrics, and much of the score has a haunting beauty that adds to the startling contrasts of this overall study in savage bitterness. With the right sort of reworking, it could be made to fit so comfortably in an opera house.
The production at the City Opera is the one that was seen on the road a few years back (and the one shown on TV in many cities), with sets and costumes by Eugene and Franne Lee and lighting by Ken Billington. It was put on the City Opera stage by the original director, Harold Prince. The orchestra is conducted by the original Broadway maestro, Paul Gemignani, and one of the tour principals , Chris Groenendaal, repeated his role of the sailor Anthony Hope. Throughout opening night, the niggling suspicion lurked - never to be dispelled - that this was nothing more than the Broadway tour show recast and put on a stage at a conspicuously low energy level.
One decision - to put throat mikes on all the singers - betrayed the entire venture. Here, after all, was a Broadway ethos at work in an opera house, and terribly done at that. The City Opera amplification system reminds one very specifically of a cheap transistor radio. In the case of Rosalind Elias's Mrs. Lovett (in her City Opera debut), the sound was generally unacceptable. Conductor Gemignani seemed to find it very difficult to strike the right balance between pit and stage - betraying his inexperience in an opera house.
Also throughout the evening, one was aware that both Miss Elias and debuting Timothy Nolen, the Sweeney Todd, were assuming roles that did not sit well in their vocal ranges. So many pivotal lines and phrases in Sweeney's music were rendered without emphasis or verbal highlighting. The climactic ''Epiphany'' Mr. Nolan presented as a monochromatic concert aria rather than the moment in which Sweeney's streak of vengeance turns into demented possession. Miss Elias lacked strength in the extremes of her voice - the low notes had no power, the high notes lacked strength. Mr. Nolan's declamatory powers were not insignificant, but Miss Elias clearly had trouble making all the dialogue sound natural and meaningful.
William Dansby's Judge Turpin was well done, if not altogether convincing as a pillar of moral turpitude. Another debuting artist, Adair Lewis, did not project the quantity of words assigned to the Beggar Woman with much clarity. John Lankston gave a caricature of a performance as the Beadle. In the pivotal role of Toby, a pop-singer type named Paul Binotto was cast, and he was simply not up to the role. So it was to Mr. Groenendaal, more a singing actor than an opera singer, that one had to turn for the full sense of Broadway-operatic meshing. Leigh Munro as Johanna demonstrated how a full-fledged operatic singer can make a ''Broadway'' role work in a large theater.
This ''Sweeney Todd'' once again served to highlight how so many American opera singers lack versatility in the true sense of the word. As projectors of solid, healthy voices (too often without distinctive timbres), they are most proficient. As communicators of the style of the musical period or nationality at hand, they are desperately short of the mark.
It also showed painfully in the City Opera's new production of Delibes's ''Lakme.'' The Pasquale Grossi sets, on loan from Chicago, had a certain style, but as lighted by Mark W. Stanley, and as squeezed onto the State Theater stage, they looked primitive and, most unfortunately, devoid of any mystery, magic, or sense of exotic atmosphere. Fabrizio Melano had no idea what to do with the artificial tale of the doomed love between a Hindu maiden and an English officer. He resorted to hand gestures and stilted postures that neither principal could execute meaningfully.
More to the point, neither Gianna Rolandi as Lakme nor Barry McCauley as Gerald communicated a scrap of the style of the French idiom. Miss Rolandi spit out her notes with accuracy, but without much ease in the upper register, which was once her great asset. Mr. McCauley used an increasingly dry tenor, in the effortful, stiff manner that is rapidly becoming a negative trademark.
Tenor Gerry Hadley, as the Duke, showed that there are young singers with world-class instruments who really do care about style and content. In every sense of this word, this was an outstanding performance, as specifically suited to Verdi as his Tom Rakewell was suited to Stravinsky. What a Gerald he would have made!