We’ve previously remarked that Wasfi Kani could probably persuade you to part with your Labrador, so it did not come as too much of a surprise that she managed the feat of getting a near-perfect little opera house from foundation to readiness within a year. Bamber and Christina Gascoigne’s phlegmatic approach to having inherited West Horsley Place from Bamber’s aunt, who had not mentioned her plan to leave it to him (“It would have been a help if she had”) must also take part of the credit for this wonderful new opportunity to hear operas in a glorious country setting.
The opera house may not be quite ready – the walls are bare, the floors likewise – but all the essentials are in place including a spacious, serene acoustic which shows off the bloom on voices and the sparkle on instruments. That sparkle was in fine form under the baton of Gianluca Marciano, who led the BBC Concert Orchestra in a festival standard performance, bringing out all the contrasts between lyricism and starkness which are so strong in Puccini’s score. The high standard from the pit was not universally replicated on stage, however, and there were times when there was a feeling that under-rehearsal had inhibited the singers.
Wasfi’s powers of persuasion must also have had a part to play in getting Joseph Calleja to open the season with his first Cavaradossi – quite the coup, of course, even if, at least on this occasion, his style of singing took us back decades into the realms of park n’ bark. Perhaps once the first night was over, he felt that he could ‘just sing’ – and that was pretty much what he did, producing stentorian tone and plenty of Italianate warmth. His Tosca was the rather mannequin-like Ekaterina Metlova; that is to say, she is pretty, charming, very well dressed and emotionally blank – at least until ‘Vissi d’arte’ when some real passion seemed to course through her, in a sensitive rendition which gained the only after-aria applause of the evening.
Roland Wood sang mellifluously as Scarpia but he was avuncular rather than brutal. The most rounded performance came from Jihoon Kim’s Angelotti – yes, it’s one of those ‘die-on’ parts which can often pass unnoticed whilst the audience waits for the principals, but there was no chance of that with this very fine bass, who made you believe in the fugitive’s plight. The other smaller parts were also well cast, with Adam Tunicliffe’s Spoletta making a particularly strong impression.
It seems to be de rigeur to set this opera in a sort-of fascist 20th century state and it must be difficult for younger audiences to imagine how shocking and revelatory that was, 1980 and from Scottish Opera. Thirty-seven years on, the style is similar and still works well with Scarpia’s deeply unpleasant regime and Rome’s fragile politics. Peter Relton’s direction keeps things swift, with attention to the interactions between characters, and Francis O’Connor’s austere sets and David Plater’s vivid, sometimes stark lighting, provide some fine stage pictures, especially in the closing scene.
This is a straightforward Tosca which would provide a very good ‘first time experience’ for those just dipping a toe into operatic waters, although the next production in this house, Jenůfa, strikes us as the more likely to be ultimately memorable. With two more impressive castings in Natalya Romaniw (Garsington’s Tatyana in last year’s Eugene Onegin) in the title role and Susan Bullock as Kostelnička this one looks an enticing prospect. Whichever you choose you are sure to be enchanted by this magical place with its idyllic grounds.
Booking information can be found here: ticketing.grangeparkopera.co.uk