Tuesday 31 August 2021

Against the odds: a fine musical performance triumphs over unseasonal weather and an unsympathetic sound system in ENO's venture south of the river

Puccini: Tosca - David Junghoon Kim - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Puccini: Tosca - David Junghoon Kim - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)

Puccini Tosca; Natalya Romaniw, David Junghoon Kim, Roland Wood, English National Opera, Richard Farnes; South Facing Festival at Crystal Palace Bowl

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 August 2021
Powerful performances from a superb cast really lift this outdoor concert staging

The Crystal Palace Bowl is known locally as the rusty laptop; Ian Ritchie's 1996 design for a concert platform in a lake, though, has rather fallen out of use. The South Facing Festival presented a wide array of open-air concerts in Crystal Palace Bowl this August, an admirable effort towards revitalising the venue, though it has to be pointed out that the concerts took place on a modern temporary structure and did not use the 'rusty laptop' itself. The reach of the concerts was wide, with artists ranging from Dizee Rascal, Supergrass and The Streets, to Max Richter and English National Opera in Puccini's Tosca. We went along on Sunday 29 August 2021 to catch the second of two performances of Puccini's Tosca given by English National Opera at Crystal Palace Bowl as part of South Facing Festival, conducted by Richard Farnes with Natalya Romaniw as Tosca, David Junghoon Kim as Cavaradossi, Roland Wood as Scarpia.

The venue is a natural amphitheatre so that as well as people at the front on seats, there were lots people sitting on the ground and views were good. There were two large screens, providing close-ups of the singers and the camera work was very responsive. It was a brilliantly promising idea, and a way for ENO to continue its aim of popping up in unusual locations. Unfortunately, the venue and the nature of the festival rather mitigated against full enjoyment, though thankfully strong and engaging performances ensure that we drew musical and dramatic pleasure from the evening.

Puccini: Tosca - Natalya Romaniw - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Puccini: Tosca - Natalya Romaniw - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)

Things began badly for us, after after a short but tiring up-hill cycle ride we found the festival venue but entirely failed to locate the badly signposted cycle racks. Bikes finally locked up, we joined the very slow-moving queue to have our bags and bodies checked. The advance information had forbidden the bringing of food and drink, which proved rather puzzling to the audience. For many, coming to the opera on a regular or an occasional basis, Summer outside-opera is associated with picnics and the idea of picnicking on the grass before the opera.

Instead, we had to make do with the rather poor festival catering, clearly aimed at the lowest common-denominator audience, pizza, burgers and such. This, plus a very poorly stocked festival bar suggested that the festival organisers had not really thought about the changes in demographic between their various audiences. 

The same seemed to be true of the sound-system which was set at blast-out level and really emphasised the bass. The sound of the orchestra was bottom heavy but rather muddy (the woodwind disappeared during the large-scale passages) and it might have been better to use a reduced orchestration. The sound-system mitigated against the English translation (a classic one by Edmund Tracey) coming across well, though all the singers tried very hard and you suspected that a better sound-system would have generated a finely comprehensible event. As it was, the text was only patchily understandable, there were no programmes, no on-line synopsis and no surtitles. If this was meant to be an accessible event, attracting those who did not come to the opera very often then it was going about it the wrong way.

However, ENO had fielded a top-notch array of artists and frankly, I would travel a long way to hear a Tosca of this quality of musical performance.

Puccini: Tosca - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Puccini: Tosca - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)

Conductor Richard Farnes kept speeds steady, yet ensured that everything flowed and the big moments really did build. The acting area was tiny, a narrow strip at the front of the stage which seemed to befuddle the lighting rig (again, you suspected that the lighting set-up was aimed at other types of act) so that there was plenty of shadow and you some times had to look at the video screens to work out what was happening. Natalya Romaniw's Tosca stood out thanks to a pair of striking outfits (this was all modern dress) in strong colours. The rest of the cast were in shades of black and grey, which was a mistake, making them blend in with the background.

Director Donna Stirrup did a fine job at the complex logistics required by the small acting area (and the marshalling of the ENO chorus at the front of the stage for the Act One finale was a masterpiece of theatre in its own right), and giving space for the singers to create drama. And when the leads were interacting, there was indeed drama a-plenty. Moments such as the Act Two stand-off between Roland Wood's Scarpia and Natalya Romaniw's Tosca were so vividly engaging that we forgot the cold breeze and the logistical problems and were transfixed; similarly the duets between Romaniw and David Junghoon Kim's Cavaradossi. The large-scale ensemble moments came off worst, partly because the sound-system mitigated against musical clarity and the marshalling of forces in a small area removed any dramatic sense.

Natalya Romaniw has performed Tosca on stage in the UK (with Scottish Opera in 2019), though ENO does not seem to have a Tosca production in its repertoire at the moment but I do hope that they create one soon for Romaniw, she deserves a fully staged vehicle. As it was, she gave us a fully rounded dramatic and musical performance. Romaniw's Tosca was charming and young; jealous and diva-ish yes, but also vulnerable and you certainly felt her steeling herself to square up to Wood's Scarpia. 

Puccini: Tosca - David Junghoon Kim, Simon Shibambu - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Puccini: Tosca - David Junghoon Kim, Simon Shibambu - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)

I have vivid memories of Linda Esther Gray singing Tosca at the Coliseum and using her native Scots accent, which brought a wonderfully demotic touch to such phrases as 'How much'. Romaniw used standard received, which I think made the character seem a touch grand and perhaps slightly less human. However, she was mesmerising in a beautifully controlled and finely sung 'Vissi d'arte'. This was a performance which not only captured the variety of Tosca's emotions, but could be finely controlled in the quieter sections yet thrilling in the bigger moments.

David Junghoon Kim made a strong partner, singing with a lovely dark, burnished tone and somehow managing to make Cavaradossi less of an idiotic cad than usual. The great moments were all thrilling and everything we might want, with strong Italianate tone and firm line, and they were all knitted together into a coherent dramatic whole. Roland Wood made a believable and rather nasty Scarpia, controlled and controlling, yet someone who exerts mesmerising power and sexual attraction, and knows it. Despite the sound-system, he dominated the Act One finale, making it really thrilling and his sparring with Romaniw in Act Two kept a constant flow of tension through the act. We were gripped.

Puccini: Tosca - Roland Wood - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Puccini: Tosca - Roland Wood - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)

The smaller roles were all well taken. David Ireland managed to avoid the tendency to make the Sacristan a comic turn, but brought some strong theatrical nous to his performance and captured both our attention and our interest. Both Ireland and William Thomas, as Sciarrone, are current ENO Harewood Artists and I look forward to hearing much more of them. Colin Judson was the suitably oily Spoletta, with Simon Shibambu as a very human Angelotti. The uncredited treble singing the shepherd boy in Act Three was nicely musical, and I loved the idea of him being a younger incarnation of Cavaradossi.

I suppose there never was any possibility of Romaniw's Tosca throwing herself off the edge of the stage at the end into the lake, and the opera's climax with Tosca shooting herself was dramatically plausible and made sense in the circumstances.

Puccini: Tosca - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Puccini: Tosca - ENO at South Facing Festival (Photo Lloyd Winters)

It is a credit to all the performers that they managed to triumph over cold, windy weather and a poor sound-system to create an absorbing and powerful musical event. This was very much a triumph of art over circumstances, and having the video close-ups of the singers made you aware of just how much they invested in this performance. 

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