Given that most of ENOs recent new productions of the standard operatic repertoire have been disastrous, La Traviata, Aida, Carmen and Turandot spring to mind, it comes as a huge relief to report that Catherine Malfitanos new staging of Tosca is a success.
A few quibbles aside, here at last is a production that one can foresee being revived many times, although any revival will be hard pushed to beat the sensational cast that ENO has assembled for its first outing.
Given that Ms Malfitano was one of the most celebrated Toscas of her generation, it was an inspired decision of the management to invite her to stage this work at the Coli and for the most part the results are quite thrilling. Frank Philipp Schlssmanns imposing sets take us on a journey from a realistic, albeit slightly tilted, replica of the church of SantAndrea della Valle to a weird futuristic vision of the Cosmos as viewed from the Castel SantAngelo. Given that the narrative and direction of the singers was exceptionally clear and properly thought through in the first two acts, the last act was a bit of an anti-climax. Whilst taking place just before dawn lighting director David Martin Jacques kept the stage hidden in stygian gloom, making it really difficult to see the singers faces which caused the temperature of the performance to drop considerably. This act needs a re-think, especially the lighting as a staging that has so much going for it in the first two acts deserves a better denouement than this.
Having said that, Malfitano certainly knows what to say about the piece and given that she had such a gifted cast to work with thankfully avoided all the clichs that most stagings are lumbered with. There were a couple of things that didnt work namely the altar boy who accompanies the Sacristan (always best to keep young boys out of the reach of Catholic priests I would have thought) and freeze-framing Toscas singing of Vissi darte, but otherwise hers was an intelligent reading as I have seen (not counting Christopher Aldens audacious staging for Opera Australia and Opera North – but thats in another league).
Amanda Echalazs Tosca benefitted from having such a knowledgeable interpreter of the role. Dramatically she was unflinching in her portrayal of the tempestuous diva, prone to outbursts of jealousy yet still capable of showing vulnerability, uncertainty and courage in adversity. Her singing was tremendous as she possesses one of the most thrilling spinto voices to be heard for a generation, and I certainly cant think of any other soprano before the public today who can touch her shes certainly the most terrific Tosca Ive ever heard, so the fact that shes in such demand comes as no surprise.
Julian Gavin had all the money notes in abundance as her doomed lover Cavaradossi, but also knew how to phrase and mould Puccinis lines with due sensitivity, whilst Anthony Michaels-Moore was suitably oleaginous as Scarpia his rounded bass-baritone had no problem riding the first act Te Deum.
Hero of the evening was music director Edward Gardner who conducted a perfectly-shaped, full blooded reading of the score yet was always sensitive to his singers needs and allowed the orchestra to breathe with them in perfect unison. I dont think Ive ever heard Tosca conducted so well. With a few tweaks here and there, this has the makings of a vintage Tosca and one that should do ENO proud for many years to come.