Christoph Loy’s staging at times requires a leap of faith, but remains a compelling piece of theatre.
The English National Opera opened its 2022-23 season with a staging of Tosca that had been seen in Helsinki in 2018, but was new to the company. Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’ has rarely been absent from the Coliseum stage – this being the fifth staging I’ve seen here since Jonathan Miller’s thrilling Mussolini-era take on the piece in the early nineties. In between, Keith Warner, David McVicar and Catherine Malfitano have all presented their very different takes on this operatic warhorse – some more successfully than others – but Christof Loy’s new staging is certainly the best since Miller’s.
Whilst Christian Schmidt’s elegant designs may look traditional on the surface, he and Loy bring a sense of timelessness to the story, highlighted by the time-travelling costumes. Location is certainly easier to pinpoint than the era in which it’s set – but given Loy’s track record of probing, intellectually stimulating productions, no one could reasonably have expected him to deliver a ‘traditional’ view of the work.
What he, Schmidt and Olaf Winter (lighting) present us with is a vision of the opera that doesn’t shy away from its artifice, but rather embraces it. We’re never allowed to forget that Tosca is an opera singer, so when she’s drawn into the head-on clash of political ideals between the old order, Scarpia, and the new, Cavaradossi, she resorts to the one thing she knows best – performing. At times of heightened drama a red theatre curtain slides into view across the rear of the stage, an apt visual metaphor to remind us of the manufactured theatricality of much of the action.
Most tellingly it appears in the final act after Tosca arrives at the cell where Cavaradossi is awaiting his fate. When it rises to reveal the battlements of Castel Sant’Angelo, after she’s given him his instructions on what to do following the fake execution, it’s evident we’re witnessing a piece of theatre concocted in Tosca’s mind. This will be her greatest performance, meticulously planned and staged. Of course, it doesn’t go to plan. Tosca’s world comes crashing down around her, and forced to face reality, maybe for the first time, she’s left with only one course of action. There was a really tense ‘would she, wouldn’t she’ moment in the final bars, but Loy’s too theatrical to rob his audience of one of the greatest denouements in all opera. Despite having seen Tosca dozens of times, I let out an audible gasp at her jump from the battlements.
“…Christof Loy’s new staging is certainly the best…”
Not only was this a dramatically intense evening, musically it was first rate as well. Indisposition on the first night had led to the originally billed Scarpia, Noel Bouley, walking the role which Roland Wood had sung, by all accounts, quite magnificently from the side of the stage. This arrangement continued for a further two performances, but with Bouley then withdrawing from the entire run, Wood performed the role on stage for the first time at this performance. He was sensational – one of the finest Scarpias we’ve seen. Not only did he manage to portray the character as more than a one-dimensional pantomime villain, but he sang eloquently and powerfully without ever resorting to hectoring. He dominated the stage – his entrance in Act I bristled with a sense of danger – and got every single word of the text across.
Theatrical sparks flew in his Act II encounter with Sinéad Campbell-Wallace’s thrillingly voiced Tosca – their game of cat and mouse was edge of the seat stuff. Having only recently embarked on the heavier rep, Campbell-Wallace was nothing short of a revelation. This exciting Irish soprano certainly embodied all the facets a Tosca requires dramatically – jealousy, vanity, fury – and created a three-dimensional character that was believable on all counts. Musically too, she was excellent. There’s the right spinto sound and weight to the voice, and her fearless high notes, allied to a resonant, warm chest voice gave notice of a singer of huge potential. She too, made every word of Edmund Tracey’s translation tell – no easy feat for a soprano, as words can easily get lost in the stratosphere.
As her lover, Cavaradossi, British tenor Adam Smith, certainly gave his all. His cries of ‘Victorious’ pinned you to the back of your seat, but throughout he was consistently musical and delivered an achingly beautiful ‘With the stars shining brightly’ in the last act. With his matinee idol good looks, he certainly looked the part, and was credible dramatically too. He knew the game was up at the end – the look on his face said it all as he went along with Tosca’s plan.
A strong Sciarrone from Ossian Huskinson, and a suitably oleaginous Spoletta from John Findon – both ENO Harwood Artists – made up for the less successful Sacristan and Angelotti, both unnecessary imports. Surely the ENO has enough in-house talent for these comprimarios? In the pit, Leo Hussain had the full measure of the ebb and flow of the score, and the orchestra played exceptionally well for him.
Why then, was the Coliseum only half full? Much virtual ink has been spilt on social media about depleted audiences, but given the excellent reviews the first night had garnered, and that this was a new staging of one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, it was a shame to see so many empty seats. The audience was certainly appreciative, loud cheers greeted all the performers, so let’s just hope it was more to do with this being a Monday night. ENO certainly has a hit on its hands, and with a cast as good as this, this run of Tosca deserves to be sold out.
• Details of future performances can be found here.