A new production of Tosca is always something to look forward to, though the last two at ENO have not been triumphs: playing around with the settings in one of the few operas located exactly in time and space has never really seemed to work.
And of course there is the famous Zeffirelli production at Covent Garden, still going strong after more than 30 years, which recreates exactly the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese, Castel Sant'Angelo...
It's a hard act to follow, even without the memory (alas for many of us, from video only) of Maria Callas in her red velvet gown stabbing Tito Gobbi.
David McVicar is the hot young director entrusted with the new version in St Martin's Lane and contrary to expectations, doesn't do anything very radical in terms of direction.
There are some unusual aspects - Tosca seems younger and more playful than usual: as in the original play by Sardou, in which she is an 18-year old orphan, brought up in a convent. Whether an 18-year old could have been a 'diva' is debatable, but it's lovely to see such energy and passion in the role.
Scarpia - always the most interesting character - is a trickier proposition. He can be suave and evil (Neil Howlett used to pull this off beautifully for ENO) or an out-and-out monster, unattractive as well as unpleasant. Peter Coleman-Wright has been turned into a curious, seedy creature, constantly touching people and then sniffing his fingers, rather as a dog checks out fellow canines for sexual promise. Combined with a rather fussy delivery, the overall effect is uncanny, as if Hannibal Lector has fused with Victor Meldrew - a not altogether happy mixture.
The costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) are traditional and absolutely in keeping with the Empire period - they are also gorgeous, especially for the upper class crowd attending the Te Deum at the end of Act 1. Tosca is showier, her dresses making the most of her considerable assets - it's not surprising that Scarpia seems to be on the brink of orgasm all the time he looks at her.
The sets are a bit of a puzzle. While it's understandable that designer Michael Vale has not attempted to rival Covent Garden's sets, his unrelieved black marble could not be more different from the gilt and light of Sant'Andrea della Valle or the elaborate frescos of Palazzo Farnese. On the other hand, they do form a dramatic backdrop for some interesting lighting effects. There are also some grating oddities. Since when did a private chapel offer an exit from a church, and what amazing form of fluorescent light did Scarpia have available in his below-stairs torture chamber?
But these are minor quibbles in a production that offered a good, no-nonsense approach to this almost over-familiar work. And McVicar has, in Cheryl Barker, one of the most exciting interpreters of the role in years. She's beautiful, vivacious, sexy and she can act. She also sings like a dream, but because her voice is so secure - and her acting so compelling - you almost stop noticing her voice: it's Tosca you hear, not Cheryl Barker.
There was a lot of press interest in the fact that her Scarpia - Peter Coleman-Wright - is her real-life husband of more than 20 years. There is a certain electricity between them on stage: unusually, when in the thrall of despair and jealousy, she throws herself on his chest, before recoiling; when he is finally dead, she not only kisses him on the lips but trails her hand between his legs (a detail I found singularly unlikely). Coleman-Wright, an ENO regular, may well grow into this role - his voice is good, but on the opening night could have done with a little more power, and if he could drop the Meldrew tones the characterisation might work better.
How dreadful, I haven't even mentioned the hero yet... but really, Cavaradossi is rather a dull character, and unless Domingo is singing him, rarely sets the stage alight. John Hudson does as well as most at ENO, though again could do with a bit more volume. Worthy of note is Nicholas Garrett as the escaped prisoner Angelotti - one to watch. The ENO orchestra is in wonderful form under Mark Shanahan.
Two logistic matters worth a mention: I'm delighted that ENO has started to broadcast a mobile ring tone just before the lights go down to remind us all to check we have switched ours off - very sensible. Less so is the new habit this season of lying to us in the bar, to try to get us into our seats early: 'Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats, the performance will begin in one minute'... When the performance starts late, after we have been seated for at least ten minutes, it's particularly annoying. Do stop crying wolf, ENO - it must be hitting your bar sales, too.