Recent productions have inventively explored classical myth (
La Calisto/Return of Ulysses
), offered Donizetti rarities (
The Siege of Calais/The Wild Man of the West Indies
) and taken us to the moon (
So, I arrived in expectant mood at the Hackney Empire for the first
instalment of ETO’s slightly disconcerting pairing of Puccini’s ‘shabby
little shocker’, Tosca, and G&S’s satirical romp, Patience (first night, Wednesday 8th May). The
company’s website offers little illumination concerning the programming:
‘our two operas in Spring 2017 have absolutely nothing in common (except
they are very, very good).’
Given that these ETO productions have to survive the trials of touring to
multiple and diverse venues, the company cannot be chastised for embracing
minimalism; but Florence de MarÈ’s designs are not simply functional, or
even limiting, they are treacherous. A steep ramp and sharply raking steps
are a singer’s potential graveyard. What is director Blanche McIntyre to
do? Inevitably, there is a reluctance to commit, which translates from the
physical to the emotional.
Moreover, there is little sense of the spiritual reality of the Church of
Sant’Andrea della Valle: just a little trellised lattice-work, a judgmental
statue of the Madonna, a trap-door (which later leads to Scarpia’s Room
101), and an easel whose representation we never see. With the cast too
afraid to put one foot in front of the other, the overall effect is one of
stasis. There is no sense of musico-dramatic unity; whatever is going on in
the pit, the protagonists are standing/sitting still. There are bureaus and
tables, and at times these offer dramatic possibilities – Tosca can pick up
a knife from Scarpia’s desk – but also encourage the individuals to become
entrenched in individual obsessions rather than to interact.
As Tosca, Paula Sides plays a huge part in redeeming this production; when
she performed the role of Eleonora, Aurelia’s wife, in Donizetti’s The Siege of Calais I admired Sides’ ‘beautiful tone and shining
vibrancy at the emotional climaxes’ remarking that ‘this was plush and
thrilling singing’. This held true on this occasion: draped in Celtic green
silk she was an embodiment of dignity and sincerity. Her ‘Vissi d’arte’
rightfully won applause; even if it felt more Handelian – in its statuesque
nobility – than verismo.
And, individual roles do not lack stature: Matthew Stiff is an upright
Sacristan, and Alexander James Edwards’ Cavaradossi is free of heart,
though sometimes wayward of intonation.
Crucially, though, the villain of the piece is disappointingly muted. I
praised Craig Smith’s performance as Eustachio in Donizetti’s Siege of Calais, enjoying his ‘Verdian intensity’, and stamina and
accuracy – but the lovely smooth lower register I noted on that occasion
seemed to have developed a few cracks and fissures. And, most importantly,
there is simply no menace to Smith’s Scarpia; his knife-edge has been blunted.
The only singer who really makes his mark is Aled Hall as Spoletta, who in
just a few seconds can register a supercilious contempt which chills the
blood. As Tosca climbs the ladder of self-sacrifice, Spoletta follows her,
and his ghastly grimace as the curtain falls contains all the hatred,
anguish, fury and frustration that the production has failed to
Conductor Michael Rosewell whips through the business in unfussy fashion.
But, I was not sure whether to describe this as a semi-staged
performance. There was certainly little sense of unity of musical and
physical movement. Perhaps G&S’s Patience will try the said
forbearance less, and offer the requisite satirical bite.
Paula Sides – Floria Tosca, Alexander James Edwards – Mario Cavaradossi,
Craig Smith – Baron Scarpia, Timothy Connor – Cesare Angelotti, Aled Hall –
Spoletta, Matthew Stiff – Sacristan; Director – Blanche McIntyre, Conductor – Michael Rosewell, Designer –
Florence de MarÈ, Lighting Designer – Mark Howland.
Hackney Empire, London; Saturday 4th March, 2017.
image_description=Tosca, English Touring Opera
product_title=Tosca, English Touring Opera
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Tosca (Paula Sides) and Scarpia (Craig Smith)
Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith