Tosca, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2011

Catherine Malfitano’s production of Tosca opens with a bang, not just from the excellent conducting of Stephen Lord, but the sudden appearance of the escaped prisoner Angelotti, centre stage at the rear of the church. He turns and flies forward, a dramatic move that sets the scene for this most theatrical of operas.

All images by Mike Hoban

Cavaradossi’s entrance is low key — he is after all just a painter coming to work on a mural — but when Gwyn Hughes Jones bursts into his first aria on the beauty of women, his impassioned lyricism catapulted this performance immediately into the top division. The duet with Matthew Hargreaves as Angelotti was brilliantly delivered, showing us the political facet of Cavaradossi’s personality.

Cavaradossi and Sacristan

Scarpia’s entrance with his henchmen, and security guards in black top hats, is a fine piece of staging helped by the excellent lighting design of David Martin Jacques. As Scarpia himself, Anthony Michaels-Moore reprised the role he sang in the first run of this production in May 2010. This attractive but deadly man evinces real desire for Tosca, combined with cool-headed cunning. The evil depth that one sometimes sees is not emphasised, but then this drama is far bigger than the characters, and I find the representation by Michaels-Moore to be spot on.

The sacristan can often appear a mere bumbling idiot, but Henry Waddington gave him some depth as a churchman who thoroughly dislikes the secular nature of the French under Napoleon, happy to think that the forces of ‘freedom’ have been defeated and more than ready to help Scarpia find the rebel Angelotti. This production gives us the political dimension of Verdi’s opera, and the forces of tradition are well exhibited by the appearance of the cardinal in his vast red cloak towards the end of Act I.

Scarpia in sybaritic mood

As Acts II and III proceeded to draw the drama to its tragic conclusion, Claire Rutter came into her own as Tosca, after a disappointing performance in Act I. This is where Tosca sets the sequence of events off on a disastrous track by her own cupidity and misplaced jealousy, yet the charm of this great singing actress was most notable by its absence, though her reactions during the torture scene in Act II, and her singing of vissi d’arte, made up for it. The torture scene off-stage is entirely realistic, and it takes four of Scarpia’s men to carry in the ample body of Cavaradossi after he has collapsed. Gwyn Hughes Jones’ fine singing of Vittoria re-ignites his political aspect, and the realism of his execution in Act III was something to behold, with flashes of gunpowder from the muskets.

Tosca just before her fatal fall

The conversation between Cavaradossi and the Carceriere at the start of the third act was beautifully done, showing there is still some decency in the Castel Sant’Angelo, and I liked the horseplay between the guards before the final scene. After Cavaradossi lies dead, Tosca throws herself backwards over the parapet, and the curtain closes on a terrific production.

If you saw this in its first run in 2010, go again to hear a world-class performance by Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi, with the orchestra superbly directed by Stephen Lord.

Performances continue until January 29 next year, so don’t miss it — for details click here.

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