The week in classic: Tosca; Ottone magazine – faith and fantasy | Opera
A a huge painted stage curtain appears repeatedly throughout German director Christof Loy’s impressive new film Tosca for the English National Opera. He slips through a church wall in Act 1, then into the gripping murder scene in Act 2, before finally dominating the entire scene. Loy would seem to provide the main characters with a massive artificial backdrop for their own personal dramas, concerns that stand out from the brutal collision of passion and politics that unfolds on stage.
Take Scarpia, the fearsome Chief of Police. Puccini’s musical motif for this brutal character is so frightening that he normally doesn’t have to do anything but take to the stage to send real chills down your spine. But here, when he first enters the church where he believes a fugitive is hiding, he falls to his knees and writhes on the floor, expressing his unspoken longing for Tosca, almost seeking an audience among the congregation. She in turn plays her part as the leading opera singer of her time, theatrically jealous of her lover Mario Cavaradossi while desperately trying to protect him and his fellow revolutionaries from the vile Scarpia.
We are in Rome in 1800, and Napoleon is advancing on Italy, and yet time is set adrift by the appearance of several powdery, bewiggy figures from the previous century, seemingly representing the ghostly ancestors of the corrupt aristocracy that Scarpia protects so brutally. This sense of timelessness and artifice is further evoked by dressing Tosca first in 1950s chic, then a 17th century saddlebag court dress for the murder scene, and finally a 19th century dress. for the denouement, where the soldiers of the firing squad appear. all in white, like ghosts, as if Tosca saw them as part of her own desperate fantasy: her naive hope that her lover would finally be saved.
From the start, Cavaradossi knows the danger he faces, and when escape seems possible, he clearly does not share Tosca’s faith that he will be saved; yet even he is not immune to fantasy. In his prison cell (where, by the way, he can’t see the stars he’s serenading), he has a vision of a miniature Tosca singing the innocent song of the passing shepherd.
Whether or not you buy into all these ideas, there’s no denying that this production, which premiered in the UK and premiered at the Finnish National Opera in 2018, is musically intense, with the designs elegant lamps by Christian Schmidt and direct lighting by Olaf Winter providing a truly awe-inspiring spectacle. Sinéad Campbell-WallaceLa Tosca, in a finely calibrated performance, is a frail and confident creature, but with a core of steel when Scarpia makes her pact: she must give herself to him in exchange for her lover’s life. His disgust is palpable, his resistance implacable. Yet Loy spoils its beautifully sung central tune, Vissi d’arte (translated here as Love and Music). It should be a moment of stillness, a tender reflection on a life devoted to song and art. Instead, she is groped and taunted by Scarpia.
Cavaradossi is sung by the British tenor Adam Smith. It’s a huge sound, not always fully focused, but instantly impactful with a throbbing top. Making his ENO debut as Scarpia is America’s Baritone Noel Bouley. He was ill on opening night, but agreed to walk the part for Roland Wood sang beautifully from the book. This may have amplified the effect of Scarpia’s distracting personal histrionics, which so often seemed counter-threatening in Puccini’s music. Smaller roles include Lucia Lucas as Sexton, Msimelelo Mbali as fugitive Angelotti, and Ossian Huskinson as Constable Sciarrone. Leaving light and air in Puccini’s haunting score – wonderfully played by the ENO orchestra – is the conductor Leo Hussain.
A million miles from the verism world of Toscaanother story of passion and politics opened last week: Handel Ottone of 1723, which comes out on the road along Agrippina and Tamerlane in English Touring Opera’s last Handelfest.
Last seen in 2014, this production, with beautiful sparkling Byzantine designs of takis, features terrific singers, the main ones being the countertenors. James Room in the title role and Kieron-Connor Valentine like his rival Adelberto. Low Edward Jowle also impresses when the prince became a pirate Emireno. The plot – too convoluted to be told here – offers Handel the opportunity to provide many vocal showcases, especially for Elizabeth Karani as the intriguing Gismonda (representing the opening night for an indisposed Gillian Webster) and Lauren Young like Matilda, torn between love for Adelberto and the desire for revenge. Soprano Nazan Fikret makes a spooky but beautifully crystalline princess Teofane. It is led with admirable talent by Gerry Corneliuswith the Old Street Band in sparkling form.
This tour – visiting Poole, Malvern, Saffron Walden, Buxton, Exeter and Truro – marks a final hurrah for the artistic director James Conway after 20 years of distinguished service to ETO, taking high-quality opera across the country. Many thousands of music lovers have reason to be grateful to him and his truly national opera company.
Star ratings (out of five)
Tosca is at the Coliseum in London until November 4