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Amanda Echalaz as Tosca [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera]
07 Jun 2010

Tosca, ENO

Seeing Tosca at the Coliseum brings back happy memories, as it was a performance of Tosca (in a revival of the Keith Warner production in the 1990s) which occasioned my very first trip to the ENO. That also happens to have been the first time I ever saw Tosca.

Giacomo Puccini: Tosca

Tosca: Amanda Echalaz; Cavaradossi: Julian Gavin; Scarpia: Anthony Michaels-Moore; Angelotti: Pauls Putninš; Sacristan: Jonathan Veira; Spoletta: Christopher Turner; Sciarrone: James Gower. Conductor: Edward Gardner; Director: Catherine Malfitano; Set Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann; Costume Designer: Gideon Davey; Lighting Designer David Martin Jacques

Above: Amanda Echalaz as Tosca [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera]


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 original Italian.

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 disappear forever.

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

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