Tosca, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, 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.

photo by Robert Workman

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.

Tosca and Scarpia in Act II, photo by Robert Workman

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.

Cavaradossi's execution, photo by Robert Workman

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.

6 Responses to “Tosca, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2010”

  1. Imogen Dent says:

    After some very sniffy newspaper critics’ responses to this production, which knocked my socks off, I’m so pleased to see another enthusiastic review that agrees with my feelings! The terrific Amanda Echalaz, the compellingly creepy Scarpia of Anthony Michaels-Moore, the stunning Act 3 set, knock-out playing from the orchestra – I couldn’t fault it.

  2. Steve Hanson says:

    I have to say that I have been to the ENO a few times this year and the modernist elements that were creeping in are being overtaken by some solid classical performances including this absolutely powerful and endearing presentation of a great classic. I endorse everything that Mark Ronan says including the comment he makes that this rendition easily outperforms that of the ROH. It was so good I had to see it twice – and I have to travel over a hundred miles to do so. Truly brilliant!! Increasingly I find myself despairing at what many critics are saying to the point where I fund that if the common theme is a slating, then I really must go and see it. I did find purely subjectively that the sweetest voice of both my visits was Julian, but the enjoyment was in the whole. Well done to all at ENO, to Catherine and the team and especially the musicians,

    • markronan says:

      Many thanks for the response, Steve. I think the ENO is going from strength to strength, helped by their musical director Edward Gardner. By the way, Julian Gavin is singing Paolo in Francesca da Rimini at Opera Holland Park. This Zandonai opera contains some thrilling music, and should be well worth a visit.

  3. John Southall says:

    I have to disagree with much that has been said regarding the performers and their perormances but my biggest criticism relates to the praise afforded to the lighting design. Just one example of the most extraordinary undeservedness is the lighting of Scarpia’s appartment. While sun is streaming in from the huge windows stage right, casting shadows on stage of the window lattice running right to left parallel to the front of stage , the huge shadows of the stage occupants thrown on the backdrop and set generally were gross ( in every sense of the word) and most distracting to any enjoyment of either the action or the singing. Surely this couls have been avoided by differential lighting of the backdrop itself.

    • markronan says:

      Good point, John. In fact I only commended one aspect of the lighting in Act 2, and I happen to agree with you about the lighting from the window. It was too bright, considering that Scarpia has been having his supper.

  4. Gareth says:

    I agree with with your review Mark, it was an excellent production. I was there last night for the final performance. I would like to add that I thought the voice of the Shepherd Boy at the start of Act III was outstanding (he is a young lad from the Oratory School by the name of Joseph Spencer-Fry, I think he will be someone to look out for in the future)

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