Puccini: Tosca

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 28 November 2011 4 stars

ToscaOriginally staged in May last year, Catherine Malfitano's production of Tosca has returned to ENO for its first revival. With rich, colourful sets and costumes, a fine cast, and a straightforward but in some ways suggestive interpretation of Puccini's classic opera, this production makes for a satisfying Tosca and a good evening's entertainment.

Malfitano sets the action at its indicated time and place: Rome in 1800, during the invasion of Napoleon. For the first act the stage takes the form of the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle. A couple of great pillars divide up the space, with huge walls placed at far stage right and far stage left, and a passageway running deep down to the back of the stage, from which Angelotti bursts at the opera's outset and Scarpia and company later come trudging. The browns, auburns and reds of this charmingly fake-looking set, along with the breezily melodic music and well-defined dramatic themes of love and treachery, set an initial tone somewhere along the lines of an old Technicolor MGM movie: immediately accessible and immediately absorbing, with no undue complications.

This atmosphere is maintained with the appearance of Gwyn Hughes Jones's Cavaradossi. Cavaradossi's first aria on the opening night was delivered with power, pathos and colour, and Hughes Jones maintains a beautiful lyricism throughout the opera in what is an excellent, standout performance. Tosca takes the stage before long, played by Claire Rutter. Rutter's Tosca is initially overbearing, self-absorbed, jealous, and fiery – all the qualities of a primadona for whom, one might think, no stage is big enough and no man sufficiently manly. Rutter's acting is well-pitched and believable. Over the course of the opera Tosca emerges as fuller and more complex than she appears at first sight. Her vulnerability comes to the fore as we get the sense of the consequences for her disposition of her being the sole woman in a man-dominated environment.

Unfortunately the relationship between Cavaradossi and Tosca isn't totally convincing. Where they should appear as a tight unit, a union of lovers who draw mutual strength from each other, they feel more like two individuals whose union would in any circumstances be unsustainable and parting always inevitable. Cavaradossi's love for Tosca is of the blind variety. This is accentuated by the different standards of vocal performance by Hughes Jones and Rutter. Hughes Jones's singing reaches the highest levels and his voice is one of this production's highlights, whereas Rutter, though not lacking in expressive quality and force across her range, doesn't quite match him. But having said that, both are believable in their respective characterisation, and we take the lovers' relationship as a given.

Puccini described Tosca as an opera 'without excessive proportions, neither of decorative spectacle, nor such as occasion the usual musical excesses.' If this description might suggest Tosca as an unoperatic opera, it is of course anything but. Lounging indulgently in unreserved melodrama, taking place over the course of twenty-four hours and so observing the classical Aristotelian unity, charting a gaudy tale of doomed love, political machinations and the inexorable hand of fate, Tosca is on the contrary very much an operatic opera (if such a thing exists). Indeed, one might wonder if opera 'without excessive proportions' is an oxymoron.

ToscaThe chief strength of Malfitano's production is that it brings out and explores these 'purely operatic' elements of Tosca. We are thankfully spared a relocating of the action to a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, or some such snazzy concept. Instead, in Malfitano's focussing on Tosca as Tosca, everything, to paraphrase William Blake, appears as it truly is – exaggerated. Characters and costumes, mise-en-scène and music: all, as they should be, are larger than life and fused together into a colourful, concentrated whole. Anthony Michaels-Moore's Scarpia, for example, is played as the archetypal nefarious villain. Cold, callous and calculating, he strides about the stage bedecked in noble purple robes, broods lasciviously over the vulnerable Tosca, and despite meeting a bloody end, manages to extend his evil grip beyond the grave to send the lovers to their doom.

Larger than life exaggerations also describe the dimensions of the set. Scarpia's apartment at the Palazzo Farnese, the setting for Act 2, is huge: a single room encompassing the whole stage, whose massive windows are twenty feet high and whose ceiling is twice that. And when for the final act we end up on the castle battlements for Cavaradossi's execution, the set is dominated by the painted backdrop of a starry sky, whose stars are magnified to look like Van Gogh-esque swirling solar systems. As Tosca falls to her death, we are left with the unchanging stars looking down unblinking, impassive and imperious on the transient action below, much as they were doing a million years ago

In more concrete terms, the pacing of this production works well enough. The build-up to Scarpia's murder is intense. The denouement of the opera draws us in like a whirlpool, ending the show with a bang (the gunshots of the firing squad made a few in the audience jump). Stephen Lord marshals sumptuous colours from the band, particularly during the quieter moments. We hear a beautiful flute in Act 2 when Scarpia throws open the windows of his apartment onto the garden outside, and the instrumental opening of Act 3 exudes atmosphere, with horns and tolling bells ushering in the approaching dawn and its funereal flipside for Cavaradossi. All in all, then, it's a solid production. Although not earth-shattering, it communicates to us that it is not an occasion for the earth shattering, but for good entertainment well executed.

By Liam Cagney

Photo Credits: Mike Hoban

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Ed GardnerRelated articles:

Opera review: The original staging of Malfitano's ENO Tosca
Opera review: Opera Glimmerglass's Toscaon DVD
Opera review: Jonathan Kent's Royal Opera Tosca
Opera review: Lindsay Posner's production of Tosca for Grange Park Opera