Puccini: Tosca (New Production)

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 19 May 2010 3 stars

ToscaEnglish National Opera's last attempt to stage Puccini's Tosca was a rather gloomy production by none other than David McVicar back in 2002, and it hasn't been seen much since. So this new staging by Catherine Malfitano – the soprano who famously performed the role in a live telecast around the world filmed in the original Rome locations indicated by the libretto – really needs to last. What are its chances?

On the basis of the production's first night at the Coliseum, it seems sturdy enough to last quite a few years, even if it lacks focus and originality. A fine cast undoubtedly adds richness to the mix in this first run, so it will be interesting to see whether it has the same impact on revival.

The first act is attractively designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann, who places the area adjoining the Attavanti chapel at the front of the stage, complete with (alarmingly wobbly) columns. The space is well handled by the designer, with a stylised backdrop and different performing areas for the singers to use. However, the second act is a different matter altogether: Scarpia's apartment is a panelled room with almost no furniture in it, and we're deprived of the idea of the chief of police as a gentleman and a man of education. The torture scene occurs offstage to the left, and doesn't quite have the impact it should on the audience; similarly, because there are no candles for Tosca to place on either side of Scarpia's body, she's left to wander the stage rather aimlessly.

ToscaAnd then, the production suddenly seems to change direction. Malfitano has spoken in promotional interviews about the idea of the universe bursting into the consciousness in the final act, and on the last chord of Act 2 the backdrop suddenly changes to reveal an image of the galaxy, which Tosca approaches with both trepidation and inevitability. The set for Act 3 then retains this image as the backdrop, with a giant curve serving as the main set. Tosca's final leap – backwards, in this production – into the void then has a new resonance, suggesting a relationship with history and fate.

It's an interesting idea, but for me the generalisation of the Personenregie meant that the psychological elements of the last two acts weren't as compellingly conveyed as they could have been. There's not enough going on in Tosca's head for us to be able to buy wholly into the concept of the inexorable ‘pull of the universe', especially after such a traditional first act. Also, the end of Act 3 is one of those scenes in opera where the only way to cope with it, directorially, is to embrace the melodrama: Cavaradossi gets shot, Tosca thinks it was staged then finds out it's for real, the police rush in to arrest her for Scarpia's murder, and she throws herself off the battlements. Here, though, the staging of the firing line isn't dramatic enough, and it's not convincing when the police and soldiers hold back from arresting Tosca when she's only a few feet away and standing still. It seems to me that with a bit of revision, all of this could be given a bit more impetus.

Of the cast, the vocal honours unquestionably go to Julian Gavin as Cavaradossi. Here is a true Puccini tenor, with a mixture of lyricism and weight, and he has the artistry to go with it. The challenges of the two big arias in the outer acts were superbly met, and overall it is difficult to image the role being much better sung. Acting-wise, Anthony Michaels-Moore's Scarpia stood out for me. Although to my ears his voice is a shade too elegant and classical for this music – he remains a great Verdian with perhaps too beautiful a line to sing some of the heftier moments here – Michaels-Moore is always an intelligent singer and actor, and he conveyed the authority and gravitas of the character with ease, striding about the stage as if he owned it.

For my taste, Amanda Echalaz's Tosca wasn't quite on the same level, though I hasten to add that the audience greeted her with loud cheers and a partial standing ovation. Echalaz is a good age for playing the part of Tosca, and she gave a completely satisfying account of the role. She knows the music well, having sung it both at Covent Garden and Holland Park, and gave a committed performance. However, for me she didn't quite underline why the drama is riveting: her acting was a little generalised and mechanical, rather than suggesting a matter of life and death. The other problem is the voice, which I still find a size too small for this large dramatic repertoire. At the top, she pushes rather dangerously, and doesn't really have the money notes the part requires. On the other hand, many in the audience were clearly thrilled by Echalaz's rendition, and ultimately that's what matters.

The rest of the cast was more than adequate, consisting of Jonathan Veira's lively Sacristan, Christopher Turner's Spoletta, James Gower's Sciarrone and Pauls Putnins's dramatic Angelotti. The ENO Chorus sang with the utmost fire in the great ‘Te Deum', a credit to music director Edward Gardner's leadership. In terms of overall structure, though, Gardner didn't always hold the reins taut: the different colours and moods in the second act in particular didn't come through, and there were various places where the connection between stage and pit seemed insecure. However, both the conducting and the direction came together for the big moments – such as the gloriously theatrical ending of Act 1 – and on that count, ultimately provided great pleasure.

By Dominic McHugh

Photo Credits: Robert Workman

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