Saturday 1 October 2022

Theatrical grandeur: ENO launches its new season with Christoph Loy's new production of Tosca

Puccini: Tosca - Noel Bouley & ensemble - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)
Puccini: Tosca (end of Act 1) - Noel Bouley & ensemble - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)

Puccini: Tosca; Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Adam Smith, Noel Bouley/Roland Wood, director Christoph Loy/Georg Zlabinger, conductor Leo Hussain; English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Christoph Loy's undoubtedly grand production mixes realism with theatrical artifice. Illness meant we experience a quartet of soloists rather than trio, but there was plenty to enjoy

Back in the 1970s, when English National Opera was producing a series of ground-breaking productions such as Strauss' Salome with Josephine Barstow, there was also a new production of Puccini's Tosca. It was relatively traditional, but long running and remained in the repertoire for some time, I remember seeing the production in 1985 with tenor Charles Craig (66 at the time) and soprano Phyllis Cannan (making her role debut, I think). Since then, ENO has had productions by Keith Warner and Catherine Malfitano, neither of which endured in the repertoire and never giving the company the sort of bread-and-butter production it needs like Anthony Mingella's production of Madama Butterfly.

The problem with Tosca, as with many of Puccini's operas, is that the work is a carefully crafted structure that directors interfere with at their peril; there are only a few rough edges through which a director can insert themselves. Christoph Loy's production of Puccini's Tosca was first seen at The Finnish National Opera and Ballet in 2018 and is the director's first production for the ENO.

Puccini: Tosca - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Adam Smith - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)
Puccini: Tosca - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Adam Smith - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)

Christoph Loy's production of Puccini's Tosca, with associate director George Zlabinger, opened ENO's 2022/23 season on Friday 30 September 2022 with Irish soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace (last seen at the Coliseum as Mimi, see my review) as Tosca and American-based British tenor Adam Smith as Cavaradossi (in his ENO debut). American baritone Noel Bouley was Scarpia, but Bouley was unfortunately ill and walked the role whilst Roland Wood sang from the side. Msimelelo Mbali was Angelotti, Lucia Lucas as the sacristan, John Findon was Spoletta and Ossian Huskinson was Sciarrone. Designs were by Christian Schmidt, lighting by Olaf Winter. The translation used was the classic one by Edmund Tracey.

There was a grandeur and richness to the production which will undoubtedly make it popular. Schmidt's sets are realistic with the right 18th century feel. Yet for all the naturalism, there was an element of deliberate theatrical artifice too. In Act One, whilst the set of the church was realistic, the ceiling cornice was pure artifice. and it was clear we were in a theatre. There were such elements in each act. Costumes in Act One were initially mid-20th century, yet when Scarpia (Noel Bouley) and his henchmen appeared they were in 18th century dress and during the Te Deum, actors in very elaborate 18th century costume wandered around the 20th century church goers. This divide continued throughout the opera.

Scarpia's entry in Act One was not through the entrance of the church, but through a large arch at the back which had been filled by an elaborate curtain. This curtain image returned in Act Two when, as the act progressed, a similarly designed curtain gradually covered the whole of the back wall. And this was used as an act drop mid-Act Three; the act began in Cavaradossi's cell then Smith and Campbell-Wallace's Tosca sang their duet in front of this elaborate curtain, before revealing the highly elaborate set for the final scene, and when the two lovers entered, the soldiers (in 18th century dress) remained stock still as Smith's Cavaradossi wandered around. I am not sure what this was meant to suggest, and there seemed a rather tentative feel to this, as if we were seeing the ghost of a more radical concept. Perhaps all Loy and Schmidt wanted to suggest was the timelessness of this story. 

There was one more adjustment, at the opening of Act Three in Cavaradossi's tiny cell, the shepherd boy (sung by Matilda McDonald) was in fact a girl dressed as Tosca, perhaps suggesting Cavaradossi hallucinating about his lover.

Puccini: Tosca - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Noel Bouley - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)
Puccini: Tosca - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Noel Bouley - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)

Whatever you do with it, however, the essentials of any Tosca production are based on the triangular relationship between Scarpia, Tosca and Cavaradossi, the clever way that Sardou, Puccini, Illica and Giacosa intertwined the historical and the personal. This was a trick learned by Eugene Scribe in his large-scale operas for composers such as Meyerbeer, but here Puccini writes on a far more concentrated scale, yet employs the same tricks.

Unfortunately, with Bouley being ill, the triangle was extended to a quartet, and the drama never quite recovered the vividness that it needed despite Bouley's remarkably strong physical language and Wood's finely musical performance. Given Bouley's strongly acted and remarkably physical performance, I would certainly be keen to hear what he did musically with the role.

Sinéad Campbell-Wallace made a highly attractive, poised and engaging Tosca. Campbell-Wallace has recently moved into more dramatic roles. She made a highly responsive Tosca, with lots of little dramatic details. She also effortlessly embraced the musical side of the role and paced things admirably. This was a performance full of good things, and I am sure that Campbell-Wallace will develop into a fine Tosca. For me, last night's performance lacked the slight element of dramatic temperament, of diva-dom; the finest Toscas are often those who take the role slightly beyond realism.

Puccini: Tosca - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Adam Smith - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)
Puccini: Tosca (end of Act Three) - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Adam Smith - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)

Adam Smith created a very attractive stage presence for Cavaradossi, somewhat hip and stylish. This painter was definitely as personable as his Tosca and Smith combined this with a finely vibrant lyric voice, full-throated and admirably even throughout the range. There was something slightly old-fashioned in Smith's approach (no bad thing, at all) including his tendency to stretch top notes beyond their natural length. Like Campbell-Wallace, there was great detail in his dramatic presentation and the painter seemed to keep the world at a distance by being amused by it, yet Smith never quite managed to make this Cavaradossi compelling, there was something slightly at one remove dramatically.

Perhaps part of the problem was that the relationship between this Tosca and Cavaradossi had a slight coolness to it. Despite all of Campbell-Wallace and Smith's engaging antics in Act One, their relationship never quite crackled or simmered and you felt that their liaison was perhaps not long for this world. Then, of course, in Act Two Campbell-Wallace had the added difficulty of performing with two Scarpias. 

Wisely, Loy did not attempt a realistic liturgical ceremony at the end of Act One (and I have only seen one production which managed this convincingly), and instead the Te Deum became about Scarpia's intense personal journey, with Bouley giving a vividly intense performance of great physicality.

Puccini: Tosca - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Adam Smith - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)
Puccini: Tosca (Act Three) - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Adam Smith - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)

Despite my reservations, there was much to enjoy in the production, and you feel that it will bed in during future performances, allowing Smith's dramatic stiffness to ease, and his and Campbell-Wallace's interactions to simmer, whilst getting Bouley back to operating fitness will undoubtedly change the balance of the production.

The smaller roles were all well taken, with Msimelelo Mbali as a vivid and very engaging Angelotti, and Lucia Lucas as a Sacristan who gave a strong performance full of comic detail, yet never descending into outright comedy. In Act One, Smith's Cavaradossi was giving a silent (and uncredited) assistant, which to some extent simplified the action, but also complicated it and seemed an unnecessary distraction.

John Findon was a vibrant physical presence, full of scary stillness, as Spoletta with Ossian Huskinson as a deft Sciarrone. The actors who created Roberti and his torture ensemble in Act Two were suitably controlled and decidedly scary. The gaoler was Ronald Nairne with Matilda McDonald as the shepherd boy in Act Three.

In the pit, Leo Hussain and the orchestra of English National Opera gave a full blooded yet sophisticated performance. Hussain paced things well, keeping the dialogue moving yet seeming to allow space for the singers, including giving tenor Adam Smith all the time he needed. And yet. Hussain seemed determined to move things on, and at the end of the set pieces in the opera there was no time for applause (of which there was plenty) so that the orchestral pick-up in each case was overlayed with the noise of audience approval. There is a lot to be said for the more old-fashioned approach of giving the audience space too.

There were two intervals, perhaps because of the elaborateness of the Act Three set, but given that Act Three lasts under 30 minutes, this made for a somewhat laborious performance and finding a way to speed things up would be of great benefit to the drama.

Puccini: Tosca - Lucia Lucas, Noel Bouley, John Findon - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)
Puccini: Tosca - Lucia Lucas, Noel Bouley, John Findon - English National Opera (photo Genevieve Girling)

This was production where all the elements were in place yet had not quite gelled yet. I am not sure how much Christoph Loy was involved directly in the production, and associate director Georg Zlabinger has revived a number of other Loy productions. As I have said, you feel that this Tosca will take time to bed down, but it has the potential to become the bread-and-butter Tosca that the company needs. As it is, there are 12 more performances, until 4 November, including a chance to catch conductor Richard Farnes in the pit at the end of the run.

The performance was preceded by ENO's current artist in residence, poet Kieron Rennie who performed his piece Conflicts of the Heart, written in response to his attending rehearsals of Tosca.

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