27 Nov 2011

Tosca, ENO

The swift return to the Coliseum of Catherine Malfitano’s production of Tosca, premiered in 2010, contrasts strongly with the increasingly disposable nature of many recent ENO productions.

Malfitano’s staging makes a refreshing change both from the likes of the floundering first-time spoken theatre and film directors often recently engaged by the company, and from the ludicrous, dramatically-null vulgarity of the Zeffirelli brigade. It doubtless helps to have someone at the directorial helm who knows the work from the inside, having sung the title-role a good many times herself. There is nothing here — with the possible exception of the third act — to frighten self-appointed ‘traditionalists’, although in such repertoire and with respect the audiences it tends to attract, I cannot help but wish that someone would occasionally shock the horses. (Just imagine what Calixto Bieito might make of Tosca!) Despite the sometimes bizarre specificity of the libretto, there seems to me no reason why intelligent relocation or abstraction could not work: the opera is not in any meaningful sense ‘about’ the experience of the French Revolution in Rome. Malfitano, however, elects successfully to retain the settings and for the most part the attitudes of the work’s creators, respecting as do they the classical unities.

The first act is therefore set in S.Andrea della Valle at noon, convincingly represented in realistic fashion by Frank Philipp Schl√∂ssmann’s designs. The force of Cavaradossi’s painting registers straightforwardly, but none the worse for that. One strongly feels the menace of the Church as pillar of the (re-)established order at the entrance of clergy and acolytes for the “Te Deum”. (I cannot help but find the anti-clericalism shallow, verging on the puerile, but that is no fault of the production.) Likewise, the second act is set at evening in Scarpia’s quarters in the Palazzo Farnese, furnished as one might expect, though without excess. The third act therefore comes as a bit of a surprise, at least in terms of designs . Doubtless taking as its cue references in words and stage directions to the stars, perhaps even those to the saints in heaven, we see the skies as if from a space ship, though something akin to the battlements is still present. It did not bother me in the slightest, though nor, by the same token, did I find the image revelatory. Throughout, Malfitano’s direction of the characters on stage proves quietly accomplished, providing neither mishaps nor particular flashes of revelation. I do not mean to imply that it is dull, for it is not, but nor does this in any sense approach reinterpretation, for which many will doubtless be relieved. If I found the final melodrama as difficult to take as ever, a not-entirely-fitting conclusion to so well-crafted a score, then clearly I am in the minority; rightly or wrongly, it receives faithful treatment here.

Stephen Lord’s conducting was impressive. Lord is not a conductor I have previously heard, but I should certainly be interested to do so again. Despite the occasional instance of perhaps driving the score a little hard, the full yet variegated sound conjured from the orchestra was as fine as I have heard at the Coliseum for quite some time. Alert to Puccini’s Wagnerisms without overplaying them, there was a fine continuity to Lord’s traversal of the score, which here in both harmony and orchestration at times sounded, to its great benefit, appreciably more modernistic than one often hears. It was not for nothing that both Schoenberg and Berg were admirers. Even Mahler, in his scathing description of a Meistermachwerk, acknowledged the skill of orchestration — an undoubted advance upon so many of Puccini’s Italian forebears — though added that any cobbler nowadays could merely ‘orchestrate to perfection’.

Tosca_2011_Anthony_Michaels_Moore_2_Credit_Mike_Hoban.pngAnthony Michaels-Moore as Scarpia

If the singing did not truly scaled the heights, it was professionally despatched. No one is going to replicate Callas, and Claire Rutter wisely did not attempt to try: hers was an intelligent enough stage portrayal, a little lacking in charisma perhaps, likewise in creation of the diva-status of Floria Tosca as singer, but, despite occasional weakness in sustaining her line, there was nothing grievous to worry about. Gwyn Hughes-Jones’s Cavaradossi was not entirely free of crooning tendencies, nor did it revel in subtleties, but it was well enough sung, and would doubtless have sounded better in Italian. Anthony Michaels-Moore seemed to experience vocal difficulties in the first act but his Scarpia sharpened up in the second, albeit without ever quite capturing the sheer danger and malevolence of the most notable interpreters. The smaller parts were all well taken. Choral singing, not always the strongest point recently at the Coliseum, was similarly accomplished.

Mark Berry