United Kingdom Puccini, Tosca: Singers, Chorus and Orchestra of Surrey Opera / Jonathan Butcher (conductor), Minack Theatre, on the cliffs at Porthcurno, Cornwall, 14.7.2014. (RB).
Tosca: Laura Hudson
Cavaradossi: Andrew Bain
Scarpia: Nicholas Warden
Angelotti: James Schouten
Spoletta: Gareth Edmunds
Sacristan: Robert Trainer
Sciarrone: Rod Searle
Jailer: Mark Edwards
Shepherd Girl: Jacqueline Yu
Director: Jonathan Butcher
Lighting Designer: Robert Callendar
Rowena Cade’s Minack Theatre is situated about nine miles west of Penzance in Cornwall down some pretty narrow and sometimes steep lanes. It’s a dramatic location and the cliff edge adds a frisson to whatever appears on the theatre’s thriving seasonal programme. This visit was my second. I had last been there in 1998 for a play based on Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm.
The amphitheatre is down precipitous steps carved out of the granite cliff face. The audience sit in steeply raked stone seats – you can hire cushions though we didn’t and survived. The stage which is about fifty feet above sea level is below the seating and is paved. It is distinguished by various fixed recesses, raised sections, crenellation and a flight of stone stairs leading up to the stage so that the singers and actors can make their various entrances and exits. There’s also a stone door and entrance/exit on the left-hand side of the stage area.
The orchestra was about 24 strong and produced a good weighty sound. In this they were aided by two loudspeakers mounted discreetly in the right and left wings.
The weather was fairly indulgent. This was early July but with an 8 o’clock start we were well into evening and the sky was already heavy with low cloud. In Act I the company and audience were treated to light misty rain. The orchestra were tucked into two chivalric tents on the right-hand side with conductor Jonathan Butcher in shirt sleeves later supplemented with an anorak. The audience were dressed informally and warmly. Many had brought picnics of varying degrees of sophistication. The atmosphere was relaxed and I noted more than the usual contingent of children in the audience – a good sign.
The evening was memorable – not least because of the music. This may have been a slimmed-down orchestra but there was no stinting on drama. So Tosca did emerge for what it is — more penny dreadful than graphic novel — but it had its emotional impact. The whole company and especially Scarpia, my star of the evening, delivered this overwhelmingly especially in the last ten minutes of Act I. The Te Deum,counterpointed with Scarpia’s lustful cries and Puccini’s sweeping melodic lines, was tellingly done even if I missed the great cannon explosions added to the RCA Mehta recording.
There was plenty to engage with in this nicely updated English language production set in Mussolini’s 1930s Italy. It works well. Laura Hudson’s vacuous Tosca played up to the character’s empty-headed silliness. Even in her great aria I lived for art I found little that was empathetic. It was brave to take that line and all credit to Ms Hudson for this – a fine performance. There’s usually a thread about this female character with which to sympathise but not here. Andrew Bain’s excellent Cavaradossi majored on nobility of bearing. Robert Trainer as the mincingly fearful Sacristan raised a smile and lightened the mood whenever he was on stage.
The role of Scarpia as taken by Nicholas Warden was magnificent. He suited the villainous core, flesh and outer of this character to a tee. The voice is coal black and resonant. The comic book evil comes across well complete with raven locks, slightly balding and harsh nose all accentuated rather well in a characterisation that on occasion veered into Rik Mayall territory; not a criticism. James Schouten’s Angelotti was strong of voice and in fact rather stole the show from Cavaradossi at the start.
Scarpia’s henchmen did the necessary. Gareth Edmunds brought out the conscience–stricken side of Spoletta, slick-haired, malleable and fearful in the face of Scarpia’s absolute thrall to evil. He made something impressive, appalled and tragic of the role, speaking to any audience of how it might react to such a situation in real life as opposed to personal heroic fantasies. Sciarrone, also sporting a double-breasted suit and fasces armband, was more of a cipher with a less active conscience than that of Spoletta.
Production detailing was resourceful and worked well. I liked the fact that the same or a very similar colour – carmine – was chosen for Tosca’s gown and Cavaradossi’s shirt in Act II. Also extremely effective was the placing by Tosca of two candles either side of the knifed Scarpia’s corpse. These movements were timed to perfection with the music. It’s the sort of detail that stays with you – step forward for a bow whoever thought of it. I was less impressed with Tosca’s girl guide style bunny-hop from the battlements.
The chorus doubled as an array of vivid extras: tourists, school girls, clergy, firing squad.
All in all this was a success made the more so by the Atlantic backdrop and wheeling gulls. Mind you, the climb back up to the car park and the night drive along the lanes indelibly underscored the memories.
At a time when Arts Council grants are being curtailed for at least one of the great London-based opera-house companies this second visit to Cornwall for Surrey Opera is a something of a template for others to follow. Last year they took George Lloyd’s Iernin to Penzance. The company is, I hope, developing a very agreeable specialism in reviving neglected operas. In 2012 they put on the first ever production of Thelma by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; I kick myself for missing it. In future I rather hope that Surrey Opera will return to the rare and deserving. I can imagine that Rutland Boughton’s Hardy-based masterpiece The Queen of Cornwall would go down extremely well at Minack as would a revival of Gundry’s Logan Rock – once mounted there in the 1950s – or The Return of Odysseus.
Further Performances until Friday 18th July at 8pm, Matinée Thursday 17th July at 2pm