Actually, that isn’t strictly true. The first time I came across Tosca was
five years earlier, in my early teens and long before I became really
interested in opera, when I was nonetheless gripped by the live international
TV broadcast from the authentic locations in Rome. That film’s star, Catherine
Malfitano, moved into opera direction herself six years ago, and it is she who
has been charged with ENO’s latest new staging.
The result is a competent, dramatically coherent and (how often these days
can one say this about a recent ENO staging of a repertoire standard?)
eminently revivable production. Above all, it stands out for the believability
of the characters — I can’t remember ever having seen such a natural,
genuine and un-stagey Act 1 love scene between Tosca and Cavaradossi, nor a
Scarpia who so successfully avoided villainous caricature.
The Act 1 set design gives a modern twist on a naturalistic setting, with a
slightly abstract, pixellated version of what is very definitely a depiction of
the actual interior of Sant’Andrea della Valle, particularly during the Te Deum
when a shift in the lighting results in the basilica’s characteristic shafts of
pale yellow light beaming down from the high windows. This coup-de-theatre by
lighting designer David Martin Jacques is one of many touches throughout the
opera which keep the production feeling true to its location, another being the
decision to leave both the Act 2 Cantata and the Shepherd Boy’s solo in the
The Act 2 staging is entirely straightforward, until the last few seconds
where a projection of an expanse of infinite star-filled space appears on the
back wall, a symbol of the simultaneous liberty and wilderness into which Tosca
moves following Scarpia’s murder. After that, Act 3 has a more abstract feel,
retaining the star-studded backdrop from the end of Act 2, with a striking
curved set which looked somewhat as though a ‘realistic’ recreation of the
uppermost reaches of the Castel Sant-Angelo had been tipped backwards through
ninety degrees. This for me was the one jarring note, principally because of
the considerable resultant visual resemblance to Act 2 of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s
Tristan und Isolde for Glyndebourne — I couldn’t help feeling that I
was watching the wrong opera, and that the music and visuals didn’t match. I
half-expected Tosca to make her final exit in the manner of Isolde in that
production, drifting off into space.
The title role was taken by the South African soprano Amanda Echalaz.
Although a substantial instrument — which I have previously showcased to
thrilling effect elsewhere, including in this very role with Opera Holland Park
— it rarely manages to dominate volume-wise above heavy Puccini
orchestration in a house the size of the Coliseum. Nonetheless it is a
beautifully-coloured, smooth and classy, and she brings the character to
vivacious and passionate life.
Her Cavaradossi was Julian Gavin — a phrase which gives me a certain
sense of deja vu, as I have now heard him in three different ENO productions of
the same opera. It is to his great credit that almost fourteen years after the
first time, he retains the vocal intensity and physical vigour of youth, but
now brings added value to the role with the more baritonal colours of his
increased vocal maturity. The spinto character of his upper voice made the big
moments thrilling, particularly ‘Vittoria!’, Cavaradossi’s political
ardour winning over his romantic ardour.
Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Scarpia was a good vocal match for Echalaz, perhaps
not quite as firmly in his element as in his recent memorable Rigoletto here
but a dangerous, vocally alluring snake in the grass. I suspect that like his
tenor colleague, Mr Michaels-Moore has sung multiple English versions of this
opera — one of the disadvantages of ENO’s use of surtitles is that it
highlights when the words sung do not match those which were supposed to be
sung, and there were a couple of such glitches.
The smaller roles were strongly assumed — Pauls Putninš was a
dramatically-compelling Angelotti despite a shortage of a vocal ‘edge’ to lend
urgency to his delivery, while ENO Young Singers Christopher Turner (Spoletta)
and James Gower (Sciarrone) were both eloquent and incisive.
On behalf of all singers-in-English, I grieve for ENO’s obsession with using
a different translation for every new staging. That sort of thing is inclined
to mess with singers’ minds. Considering that Puccini doesn’t tend to translate
well into English, the Amanda Holden translation used in David McVicar’s 2002
production was really quite respectable, bringing a natural rhythm to the text
within the tight constraints of the musical line. So why now revert to an
ancient and rather ungainly translation by the late Edmund Tracey? I hope other
English-language companies pick up on Holden’s translation so it doesn’t now
Under Ed Gardner, the orchestral sound was full of life and colour, with
special mention due to the vicious snarls of the trumpet in the torture scene.
The cello quartet just before ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was beautifully played
— when I saw the last production I vividly remember the passage being a
disaster, and it sounded so utterly different this time round that I had to
compare the orchestra lists in the two programmes. It would appear to have been
exactly the same cellists now as then, which underlines yet again the extent of
the good that Gardner’s directorship has done this band. Musically, this
performance is a triumph.
Ruth Elleson, May 2010