United Kingdom Puccini, Tosca: Soloists and Ensemble of English Touring Opera / Michael Rosewell (conductor). Hackney Empire, London. 9.3.2017. (JPr)
Tosca – Laura Mitchell
Cavaradossi – Alexander James Edwards
Scarpia – Craig Smith
Angelotti – Timothy Connor
Spoletta – Aled Hall
Sacristan – Jan Capiński
Sciarrone – Maciek O’Shea
Jailer – Felix Kemp
Director – Blanche McIntyre
Designs – Florence de Maré
Lighting design – Mark Howland
I missed Tosca earlier this season at English National Opera and now – in the old saying about London’s buses – two come along within a week. That apart, it is the umpteenth time I have seen Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’, as Joseph Kerman famously dismissed it. I have written before how a great performance of Tosca is a visceral experience and should take you on an emotional rollercoaster ride that makes you realise how Puccini never wasted a note. As years pass the story of an operatic diva, her political free-thinker painter lover, a sadistic chief-of-police all caught in a net of love and revolution seems a very modern one. Throw in a couple of suicides, an attempted rape, the torture scene and how much Scarpia relishes it, the horrendous choice Tosca faces, her expressed disgust and hatred of Scarpia, his murder and a death by firing squad; and it all has an almost Tarantino-like twenty-first century violence that guarantees box-office success now – but was a surprising choice of subject for Puccini in 1900.
It is very brave of English Touring Opera – who describe themself as ‘Opera that moves’ – to choose Tosca to tour alongside Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience to venues throughout England and Scotland (Perth) until June. Touring obviously limits what they can put on stage in terms of scenery as designer, Florence de Maré, explained in an interview in the programme: ‘The first challenge is to create a setting which not only physically fits each venue but also sits comfortably within it. There is then the “IKEA” consideration of how it will flat-pack back into the tour lorry every other day.’ To be truthful, the set reminded me of the incredible work of local theatre groups that we can see in our hometowns, but never approached the standard of the major opera companies.
I have seen two touring opera companies this year: Ellen Kent’s Aida which I thoroughly enjoyed (review here) but whose presentations are frequently disparaged by so-called ‘mainstream’ critics and now ETO. Of the two I much preferred Ellen Kent and it must be remembered that she gets none of the Arts Council support or the financial assistance from various grants and foundations that ETO apparently gets. Don’t get me wrong there were some highlights to this Tosca that made my first visit to the Hackney Empire for a couple of decades worthwhile. Architect Frank Matcham’s old theatre remains a poignant reminder of a bygone music hall age with its opulently gilded plasterwork now even dustier than his more famous London Coliseum.
Tosca needs three major locations from the Rome of Napoleonic times; the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Scarpia’s Palazzo Farnese apartment and the moonlit scene for the execution at the Castel Sant’Angelo. Along with historically appropriate costumes, an easel, a statue of the Madonna, some tables and chairs; what Florence de Maré was able to provide was basically a single set for all three acts. There was a tower at the rear of the stage which came into its own in Act III, but provided the doors for the church and a window for Scarpia’s apartment. There were four wide steps at the front up to a platform with a concealed trapdoor for the Act I chapel and Act II torture chamber, and a sloping catwalk stage right. It did not seem easy for the principals to move over and I saw instances of them regaining their balance only at the very last moment to just avoid tripping up.
What Michael Rosewell achieved from his 30 plus musicians was remarkable and I cannot give enough praise to Tony Burke’s orchestral reduction. Admittedly it was strangely jaunty-sounding at times, though mostly Michael Rosewell conducted a fervent, illuminating performance which had all the passion and grand dramatic sweep a fine Tosca should have. He got the climaxes absolutely perfect; the gripping Act I ‘Te Deum’, the unbearable tension of Scarpia’s death in Act II and Tosca and Cavaradossi meeting their tragic fate in Act III. At the curtain call the whole valiant ensemble (including principals) only numbered 21 and – like Ellen Kent – ETO uses local performers in their performance and the children’s choir from St Mary’s and St John’s CE School were splendidly spirited in Act I.
Another of ETO’s aims is to bring new audiences to opera, and from what I heard on leaving the Hackney Empire they are succeeding, since a couple said they had been ‘converted’! It probably would have been better to sing Tosca in English especially as the translation projected on either side of the stage looked as if it had gone through Google Translate. I know the opera and really didn’t need to look all the time, but if I did I might have given up after Angelotti’s ‘policeman’s mug’, the Sacristan exclamation of ‘Holy Jars’ and Cavaradossi’s ‘into them my whole being fixes itself’ (about Tosca’s dark eyes).
Sadly, the singing overall paled in comparison to what I heard in the concert performance by OperaHerts recently (review here). If only ETO had most of that cast what a performance this would have been. When one of the most vivid portrayals was by Aled Hall in the minor role of the conspiratorial Spoletta and a singer, Jan Capiński – stepping in for a sick colleague as the grumbling Sacristan – also catches the eye and ear, then there clearly are some issues with the casting. Equally effective was soprano Vanessa Bowers as the shepherd (boy) at the start of the final act. No one let the side down, but Alexander James Edwards – despite his defiant, ringing and long held “Vittoria! Vittoria!’ in Act II – sounded already a bit tired and he has several more performances still to come (although like Tosca and Scarpia his role is double cast). The Essex-born tenor does not seem a natural Cavaradossi and his one-dimensional performance was not helped in Act III by failing to be told by his novice opera director, Blanche McIntyre, that his character never really believes he will escape with Tosca and – knowing he is sure to die – plays along with her delusion. The gaunt Craig Smith is a vastly experience singer, but again, perhaps not a ‘natural’ Scarpia. His oleaginous Act I courtship of Tosca in Act I allowed his rather pallid baritone to be appropriately seductive, but as the evening on went he needed to be far more aggressive, menacing and brutal, which his voice can no longer summon up it seems. Though she delivered ‘Vissi d’arte’ as a concert aria rather than a heartfelt plea, Laura Mitchell’s Tosca was probably the best of the three leading singers. In Act I she was irresistibly playful, flirting and teasing her recent conquest, and as all the familiar unfolding politics, torture and threat of sexual violence impinged on her character, Ms Mitchell’s voice showed great reserves of power, emotional expressiveness and the necessary searing intensity. Her exclamations of horror and outrage at the opera’s denouement were thrillingly delivered.
For more information about English Touring Opera’s forthcoming performances visit http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/.