Saturday, 22 May 2010


22/5/10, ENO

A new production by Catherine Malfitano (her first). She clearly likes her operas straight and there seems to be no trickery here. What I take to be the original stage directions seemed to be followed scrupulously.

There were some fine sets: a great example of old fashioned scenery painting in the first scene, with the interior of the church picked out in great detail on a backcloth, while in the foreground we had columns, statue of the virgin, painting, gated chapel etc, all as advertised. Likewise Scarpia's office in Act 2. Only the battlements in the third act were not conventional: a great semi-circular space a bit like a skateboarding ramp, on which at one point the soldiers played a game in which they seemed to treat as such.

She likes her lighting. There was a scarlet predawn sky on the backdrop at the start of Act 3, fading to icy blue with a blue light on the stage and the firing squad downstage with their backs to the audience, silhouetted in shadow. And during Cavaradossi's offstage torture he is taken out into some brightly-lit anteroom through a pivoting door: the light floods onto the stage from the side. And in Act 1 at the end the back of the church lit up while downstage front the chorus (or choir) forms up with what looks like a cardinal at their centre, his back to us facing upstage, a great red cloak spread out behind him. It's a tableau that prefigures the end of Act 2, when Tosca stands downstage centre with her back to the audience and the back wall of Scarpia's study lights up to show the battlements beyond. And then Act 3 is the only one to finish with the central figure facing the audience, as Tosca turns, appalled by the drop, and falls backwards to her doom. All a bit schematic, perhaps, but striking.

Only in operas like this does the 19th century tradition of melodrama survive. I thought Sardou's original play must be pretty risible, but then remembered The Prince's Play which we saw at the National with Ken Stott some years ago: written by Victor Hugo, it was the model for Rigoletto, and I seem to recall it was pretty compelling stuff.

Musically Act 1 takes a while to get going (despite the great tenor aria at the start). Act 3 struggles to hold one's attention. Act 2 is a cracker.

Scarpia (Anthony Michaels-Moore) had a frog in his throat for part of the time but was thoroughly and convincingly nasty. Cavaradossi (Julian Gavin) had the requisite heft. Tosca (Amanda Echalaz) sang beautifully and I thought was quite a looker until the lights came full on for the curtain call...

Psychologically it's interesting. When Cavaradossi is being tortured but Tosca sings "I am being tortured" it's a Lady Macbeth "What in our house?" moment: the diva taking centre stage. Her death's a bit like that too

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