Puccini’s Tosca needs little introduction. A well-known vehicle for the late Maria Callas, the opera contains several of the most popular – and vocally taxing – arias of all time, including Recondita armonia, E lucevan le stele and Vissi d’arte. Although once described as a ‘shabby little shocker’, the raw emotions and human scale of the work have made it popular with audiences since its premiere on 14 January 1900 in Rome.
The great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso claimed that all you needed for a successful performance of Verdi’s Il trovatore was the four greatest singers in the world. He could have added that Tosca needs at least three of them and, sadly, English National Opera’s revival of the David McVicar production failed to come alive simply because of the vocal limitations of the principals.
In the title role, Claire Rutter gave a committed and dramatically convincing performance. Her voice is too small for the role (she would make a great Butterfly), but when Puccini’s lush orchestration is moderated her performance is enjoyable. The words in her Act 1 aria were totally unintelligible, but she excelled in Vissi d’arte (“Life was music” in Amanda Holden’s somewhat liberal translation). Rutter’s final line before throwing herself off the battlements in Act 3 was blood-curdling, but her failure to project her voice throughout the rest of the evening let her down. Act 2 was particularly disappointing, because the conversation between Tosca and Scarpia requires the kind of textual clarity in which Callas and Gobbi excelled but which was lacking here.
The greater part of the blame must go to Stephen Kechulius’ Scarpia. He was exceptionally ill-cast as the lecherous Chief of Police who forces Tosca to make love to him, as he was neither physically nor vocally alluring. In Act 1 he was acceptably authoritative when storming the church for the hidden fugitive Angelotti (the vocally superb D’Arcy Bleiker making his ENO debut) but his Act 2 encounter with Tosca was unengaging, again mainly due to the incomprehensibility of the words. The company would be better off performing this sort of work in the original language with surtitles, allowing them a greater choice of singers, and the audience would know exactly what is going on.
As Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, Julian Gavin gave a strong performance in terms of tone, but he was probably the worst culprit of the three regarding diction. He also made the dramatic transition between carefree lover in the first act and the political activist awaiting execution in the third act very convincingly. His was the most capable voice, the only one consistently capable of soaring above the high dynamics of Puccini’s orchestra.
The orchestra itself was in luscious mode, making the most of the highly romantic sounds of the score. However, perhaps Noel Davies could have controlled them a little more at times, allowing the singers a little more breathing space. The chorus made a fine contribution in the Te Deum at the end of Act 1.
Michael Vale’s sets for this production are so dark (as is Paule Constable’s lighting, revived by Ian Jackson-French) that the three locations for the acts seem at times to be merged into one. The church was efficiently depicted but Scarpia’s room in Palazzo Farnese was essentially a black box. By the end of the act one could hardly make out that Tosca was placing a crucifix on the murdered Scarpia’s body. The set for the final act seemed to limit the action of the singers, who were forced to the front of the stage for most of the time by the excessively steep steps of the Castel Sant’Angelo. This production is not one of David McVicar’s finest and he has not returned to supervise the revival, perhaps to its detriment.
It’s good to see ENO back in this theatre but a more thoughtful production and even cast are required if they are to convincingly attempt this sort of operatic war-horse.