Tosca, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2010Posted on 19 May 2010
Puccini in English? Some people dislike the idea, particularly for well-known operas they have heard in Italian many times. So they might skip this new production of Tosca by Catherine Malfitano, but that would be a grave mistake. I was so carried away by the raw energy of the performance that I barely noticed the translation into English. In fact it seemed a good translation, but that’s not the point. What’s important is the conducting, the singing, and the production, which I found more moving than Covent Garden’s Tosca.
Immediately the first chords come from the orchestra, I felt the powerful energy of the music, and the entrance of the fugitive Angelotti seemed more dramatic than I’m used to. By the time Cavaradossi entered and sang strongly about the painting he’s doing, I wondered where it could go from here — but go forward it certainly did. Scarpia entered looking like a black-suited Napoleon, with his henchmen also in black and wearing large sinister top hats. After his poisonous insinuations caused Tosca to collapse, he picked her up from the floor, with barely suppressed desire. Then as the priest and choristers moved forward in the church, Scarpia climbed the painter’s ladder on stage right, the music moved to a glorious climax, and the priest’s red cloak spread perfectly to the front edge of the stage. The lights went dead and applause resounded round the House.
Act II was a welcome relief, despite the realistic off-stage torture scenes. As Tosca sang her famous Vissi d’arte the lighting portrayed her as if in an Italian painting, and as soon as it was over the lighting changed again. Anthony Michaels-Moore as Scarpia was lyrical, attractive and deadly, even bringing forth some admiring boos from the audience at the end. But there was still Act III to come, and musically this was the pièce de résistance.
The set for Act III was more abstract than the previous sets, the backdrop showing a blown-up image of part of the night sky through a powerful telescope. There was clowning around among the guards at the start, giving a light-hearted air that became heavier and more forceful as the Act progressed. This was accomplished by the excellent conducting of Edward Gardner, along with the brilliant singing of Julian Gavin as Cavaradossi, and Amanda Echalaz as Tosca. I was riveted. The execution went with a bang, and Cavaradossi fell and rolled forward almost to the front of the area he stands on. The music allows us to believe it’s a mock execution, and despite seeing innumerable Toscas I was still half-convinced. The conducting here was superb, and as Tosca realises the truth, the music swells with angst and energy, news of Scarpia’s death is heard, and the way she throws herself off the edge I’ve never seen before in this opera — you must go.
Yes, most people have seen Tosca before, but this production by Catherine Malfitano is, if I can put it this way, a singers’ production. It’s produced by a singer who fully understands the nuances of the characters and their interactions, and it allows the performers to give their best, which they certainly do. The sets by Frank Philipp Schlössmann are wonderful, the costumes by Gideon Davy are excellent, and the lighting by David Martin Jacques is cleverly atmospheric at important moments. Congratulations to the ENO.
Performances continue until July 10, and they certainly deserve to sell out.