When it comes to staging Tosca even the most innovative of directors tend to stick to the original time and place. This is because when the setting is specifically stated to be Rome across the afternoon, evening and early morning of 17 and 18 June 1800, and concerns an actual historical event (the Battle of Marengo), there is really nowhere else to go. Given this, soprano Catherine Malfitano’s 2010 production for English National Opera, now enjoying its second revival (by Donna Strirrup), is relatively radical. Although it maintains the settings of the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo, it does not portray these places entirely literally.
In Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s sets the church may be presented as a Baroque jewel, but the chancel and reredos are displayed in exploded form and a semi-circular structure intersects the upright columns. Although a few of the features could suggest that the church evolved over the centuries so that different architectural styles now vie with each other, the real purpose is to disconcert us and add to our sense of unease as the extraordinary events unfold. The set is fairly symmetrical, with Cavaradossi’s painting on one side mirrored by the Attavanti Chapel exactly opposite, and presents quite a tight performance area. The majority of the action is consequently pushed towards us, which makes it feel highly immediate, and the high walls on both sides make the area feel like a pressure cooker where everything will overheat, and from which there is no hope of escape.
Act II’s Palazzo Farnese utilises the same basic walls for its set (while also featuring the semi-circular structure), but creates an even more enclosed area. Looking at the texture of the surfaces they suggest a palace that in origin was highly decadent and yet is now a little dilapidated. David Martin Jacques’ lighting designs (revived here by Kevin Sleep) are intelligent so that light floods into this dark, repressive area via a window on the left, and through the door that is opened for Tosca to hear Cavaradossi being tortured. This means that two characters in close proximity can still appear in light and shade respectively by planting themselves in exactly the right place. For example, Tosca sings ‘Vissi d’arte’ (although you won’t hear those words in Edmund Tracey’s English translation) on a sofa with Scarpia sitting directly behind her with his back to us. He is so close and yet so far from her as she is bathed in light and he in darkness, but as soon as the aria ends he turns his body back into the light and is thus once more beside her in every sense.
At the end of the act a starlit sky appears on a backdrop, which sets the scene for Act III when the semi-circular structure takes centre stage with the cosmos behind it. This takes us to the ‘top of the world’ as if the whole opera has seen Cavaradossi and Tosca rise above the turmoil to end up just a breath away from heaven. The semi-circular structure that is seen in every act is, in fact, a horizontal cross-section of the Castel Sant’Angelo. If we were looking upwards through it we would see the sky directly above us as it is shown here, and this touch brings an extra dimension to an opera that is very difficult not to stage entirely literally.
There are some weaker aspects to the staging as well. The set-up in Act II seems a little too focused on exploiting the light sources, which by the same token can make the direction and movement of people feel a little prosaic. Similarly, in Act III the music by which Cavaradossi is shot is brilliant because it simultaneously captures the routine nature of the soldiers’ business from their own point of view, the fear felt by Tosca despite believing everything will be all right, and our own absolute sense of impending doom. The direction, however, does not contribute to driving home all of the associated emotions. The soldiers march on and off in a formation that sees many of them standing still for certain beats, which breaks up the sense of relentlessness, while the presence of a few individuals in front of and behind them clutters the visual image.
The three central performances are exceptionally strong. American soprano Keri Alkema makes a notable ENO debut as Tosca. If initially it feels hard to break out of seeing her as someone who is deliberately portraying a demanding diva, this problem is overcome as soon as we begin to understand the nature of her jealousy. It is clear that this Tosca is self-aware enough to know what she is like, which enables her to tinge her demands with just a touch of humour. It also makes her downfall all the more tragic because when Scarpia first exploits her jealousy one senses that a small part of her is asking herself why she is actually taking the bait. Her voice is not as darkly hued perhaps as many Toscas, and that may also be its strength. She can shape her sound and assert it powerfully while still maintaining a certain element of lightness. Her soprano thus seems to fit her portrayal of the singer perfectly, and it just gets better as the evening goes on. Her death as she falls backwards off the ‘parapet’ is also one of the most convincing you are ever likely to see.
Gwyn Hughes Jones, who appeared in the last revival in 2011, is on fire as Cavaradossi. His voice is magnificently expansive and so focused that, as it rings out, the polish and accuracy in his sound stand out just as much as the obvious power. He is also a strong actor so that when he sings ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in which he looks back on happier times, one genuinely feels what is the ultimate tragedy of the opera, namely that twenty-four hours earlier he and Tosca were just two people going about their normal lives. One also senses in the final scene that this Cavaradossi is aware that he will not be getting out of the situation alive. He has worked out the improbability of Scarpia having kept his word, and yet is maintaining the pretence for Tosca’s sake and perhaps his own. There is no obvious gesture that gives it away, but the expression on his face and the manner in which he asks to be reminded of their future together, as if he needs to cling to that thought in his final moments, provide certain clues.
Craig Colclough, recently seen at the Coliseum as Kurwenal in Tristan and Isolde, is an intriguing Scarpia. This production has always tended to portray the Chief of Police as a dangerous charmer, as opposed to the brutish force he tends to be played as in Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production at the Royal Opera House. Colclough very much follows the precedent already set, and his interactions with Tosca are consequently very effective. He reveals his ability to charm her alongside his own sense of fear that he should be so infatuated with her and hence so out of control of his own emotions. Occasionally, he seems to take some elements of the character to extremes, and it would help if there were still just a little more raw brutishness about him, but with his strong, secure and relatively warm bass-baritone he delivers an undoubtedly compelling performance. In the pit Oleg Caetani, who has also taken the helm in Kent’s production, conducts with relish to bring out the sheer power and visceral excitement that are just waiting to be unleashed in Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’.
Martin Fitzpatrick conducts on 1 and 3 December 2016.