English National Opera Revives A Tosca Full Of Love And Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera. Conductor: Stephen Lord,London Coliseum, London, 26.11.11. (JPr)

Tosca-Claire Rutter Credit: Mike Hoban

I feel like writing ‘please read what I wrote before’, then discuss any cast changes … and leave it at that. However, in this case I must just recant my – less than enthusiastic – earlier thoughts and so, if cast with strength like this and performed with their conviction, Ms Malfitano’s staging could run and run and hopefully be a reliable box office winner for English National Opera. What has caused this change of heart? Perhaps it is the opera rollercoaster I have recently been on, from the high of a student performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor to the lowest-of-the-lows with Opera North’s The Queen of Spades. Perhaps I just sat down not expecting much and was delighted to come away glad I had been there.

Last time, I wrote how Catherine Malfitano had mentioned in an interview “The minute the audience feels ‘we’ve been here before’, we’re in trouble”. Despite what I wrote then, perhaps familiarity does actually breed contentment. Directoritis can update operas but perhaps certain works, do require certain things and I was happier this time to be in the Act I interior of the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, with a crucifix, a Madonna, a chapel stage left and an unfinished painting stage right and for Act II it must hint at Scarpia’s apartment at the Palazzo Farnese with a table set for dinner and a chaise longue for him to get to grips with Floria Tosca. So far so very traditional for Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s sets and Gideon Davey’s costumes that bring us Puccini’s vision of Rome in 1800. It is only in Act III where we are looking up through the turrets of Castel Sant’Angelo to the starry sky above that we see something different from what we might expect.

There are also times when Ms Malfitano appears to be highlighting certain aspects of the story at the expense of others. Certainly by making the appearance of Angelotti the primary focus of the audience’s attention at the start of the opera – he is first shown at the back of the stage in the centre – it is clear the director wants politics to be as important as the love triangle between Cavaradossi, Tosca and Scarpia. Undoubtedly the outwardly tragic and simplistic story is a political one: Tosca, the beautiful Italian opera diva, first says too much and betrays her painter lover into the hands of the unscrupulous chief of police, then kills Scarpia to save Cavaradossi. All are ultimately doomed, and the theatrical conventions here leave no emotional stone unturned, and there is passion, love, jealousy, lust and hate. Yet when Puccini wrote the opera in 1898, he based it on Victorien Sardou’s play that had been written for – and popularized by – Sarah Bernhardt; La Tosca mirrored the political turmoil that was Italy throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Unlike Angelotti’s dramatic appearance, Cavaradossi’s entrance is more low-key but the entry of Scarpia and his top-hatted henchmen gives the audience another frisson but here I begin to first notice something that annoyed me before and still does: the eccentricity of David Martin Jacques’ lighting. It is too ‘theatrical’ for me and spotlights individual moments much too much. However Maltifano excels in the naturalness of the interactions of those on stage, from Cavaradossi with the Sacristan, Angelotti and later, his Gaoler, to Tosca and Scarpia in their crucial Act I and Act II encounters. Perhaps I was not so convinced by the painter’s love for his diva but maybe this got lost in all the finely observed detail surrounding them.

Act III perhaps needs a little re-thinking because the only thing the director has on her mind is to build up to Tosca chillingly plunging backwards from the parapets to her death. Actually there is little sense of peril here because no one else was around, so had the soldiers actually appeared on stage – as they usually do at this point – they would have caught her before she jumped off! Also, I remain not too keen on the distracting horseplay between the guards at the start of this final Act.

Nevertheless, I was pleased to see and hear ENO give a world-class performance and I want it to be like this now every time I return to the London Coliseum. Claire Rutter was a strong Tosca who improved as the evening went on. Her girlish flirtation and schoolgirl-like jealously in Act I perhaps kept her inner-diva in check but this emerged in the raw passion of Act II and the heartfelt rendition of her aria ‘Love and music, these I have live for’ where she kept her slight vibrato in check to reveal some wonderful vocal plangency and colouring.

Alongside her was Gwyn Hughes Jones as a burly – and superb – Cavaradossi. He has a strong, able voice but sings as if determined to eschew the routine and not give anybody what they expect by doing anything obvious. Perhaps this comes from his recent work with Plácido Domingo? His first aria seemed suitably understated and throughout the musical climaxes seemed torn out of him against his will, never more so than in his shattering cries of ‘Victorious! Victorious!’ in Act II, and this added considerably to the drama. I know I can be accused of hearing possible future Wagner singers wherever I go, but I wonder if Mr Hughes Jones has ever thought about taking on Siegmund.

Here I must repeat what I wrote before and indicate that there is something still lacking from Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Scarpia … and that is true dark villainy! Yes he puts a little of this into his acting performance and he shows real desire for Tosca but it is mostly missing from his baritone voice that lack some bass resonance. Henry Waddington (Sacristan), Matthew Hargreaves (Angelotti), Scott Davies (Spoletta) were outstanding in their smaller roles.

Stephen Lord replaced ENO’s music director Edward Gardner in the pit for these performances and he lacked some of his subtlety last time around. Lord clearly has the drive to conduct Tosca as if it really matters and has the ability to bring out every detail of the score, making it sound fresh. He was given strong support by the always excellent English National Opera. My only criticism would be that he stopped the music to allow for applause from time to time when it should have been moved on. (The audience was suitably enthusiastic on this opening night with one or two even indulging in premature adulation in Act III when nothing was needed and spoiling things a little.)

Finally, can I call again for a new Tosca translation as Edmund Tracey’s venerable one is rather clunky now in places? However, it is clear from the slight difference in words here and there from those displayed in the surtitles that this matter had been considered in rehearsals. Consonants were frequently seen to be replaced by vowels, such as, exchanging ‘grief’ for ‘sorrow’. While commenting on this, I would like to end by giving credit to the great diction displayed by all the singers who often made the surtitles for opera sung in English somewhat superfluous once again.

Jim Pritchard

Tosca performances continue until 29 January 2012 and for further information visit www.eno.org.