English National Opera’s new season opened with Tosca which is always guaranteed to draw a crowd. Puccini’s opera has much to commend it, notably a lush and inventive musical score, unforgettable arias, and moments of sometimes shocking drama.
There were problems on opening night at the Coliseum. When Annilese Miskimmons, ENO’s Artistic Director, announced that Noel Bouley singing Scarpia, was indisposed and would be miming the role, the energy seem to drop in the auditorium. Scarpia is a pivotal role (he is hardly off stage). We wondered whether Roland Wood, parachuted in to sing the police chief, could save the day.
We needn’t have worried. From one side of the stage came Wood’s majestic baritone. Not only that, Wood displayed great intuition and pacing, preparing the way for a close entente between the two artists. Wood fed Bouley with his mellifluous, seductive, and menacing baritone. Boulez made up for his muteness by delivering a powerful performance, particularly in his thwarted seduction scene with Tosca. Sinéad Campbell Wallace in the role of Tosca looked truly paralysed with indecision and fear.
And what of Tosca? I had already been bowled over by Sinéad Campbell-Wallace’s Leonora in Fidelio at the Barbican this year and yet I wasn’t at first convinced by her new role, or her pairing with Adam Smith who sang Cavaradossi. This is partly to do with the opera itself. Tosca is presented as petulant and jealous when the audience first meets her. She believes Cavaradossi, has painted other eyes than hers on the Madonna he is working on. Smith’s mocking expression of incredulity seemed too flippant for us to really believe in his love. He had just sung the impassioned Recondite armonia where his lovely Tosca is put on a pedestal. The relationship developed Act II when the lovers are put to the test. Cavaradossi is now imprisoned for aiding a republican opponent of the monarchy. With Scarpia looking on cruelly, Tosca is forced to listen to her lover’s cries rising up from his prison cell. Cavaradossi’s cries run through Tosca and through the audience.
The theme of emotional and physical torture was well handled in this production. The oppressive sets- heavy architecture all contributed to the sinister atmosphere. Smith sang his pain and his pride at the royal army’s defeat, very convincingly, hitting the high notes with force, sustaining them well. His prison aria Act III ‘When the stars were brightly shining, an ode to Tosca was beautifully tender and poignant. Meanwhile Campbell-Wallace’s heart-rending ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore (I have lived for art, I have lived for love) was equally affecting. Scarpia the torturer is also, interestingly a victim of unrequited love. He accuses Tosca of making him ‘forget God’.
In this highly charged drama, conductor, Leo Hussain, was magnificent in extracting much excitement from the romantic score. I was seated right behind him and was privileged to see the master at work. He was both exacting and unpredictable, adding a little swing to Puccini’s ascending strings.
On a final note, there were some lovely cameo roles – particularly impressive was Msimelelo Mbali, in the part of Angelotti, the republican whose confident bass rose above the orchestra seemingly effortlessly.
This felt like a confident production in the end which will only get stronger.
12 Evening Performances Remaining: Oct 3, 5th, 8th, 10th, 13th, 15th, 19th 22nd, 27th, 29 Oct
Nov 2nd and 4th.