Hats off to Wasfi Kani and Grange Park Opera for delivering a 750-seat house based on La Scala, in just under a year, although it is not yet complete – exposed wiring, bare concrete floors and light-fixtures yet to be mounted are mere details beside the undeniable achievement of transforming the boggy woodland at West Horsley Place (a handsome Tudor pile once owned by Bamber Gascoigne’s great-aunt, the Duchess of Roxburgh) into what will eventually be a magnificent performance space.
However Puccini's Tosca is here uneven, although rescued with some standout moments. Peter Relton chooses a conventional approach, transferring a politically turbulent Rome in 1800 to Mussolini’s 1930s. Nothing new here, but there is lavish detail and considerable atmosphere generated from the vaulted ceilings and painted chapels. Scarpia’s quarters are no less palatial, the whole dimly lit throughout. Costumes mostly conform to the period – with Ekaterina Metlova’s Tosca dressed curiously like Julie Andrews in the closing sequence of The Sound of Music.
Andrews could sing and act, and here was the essential flaw in this solid if unremarkable presentation. All three central protagonists need to convince on equal terms to create the necessary dramatic tension. Missing here was the crucial chemistry between Joseph Calleja’s marvellously-sung Cavaradossi and Metlova’s vocally secure but milk-and-water Tosca. The latter’s 'Vissi d’arte’ was radiant, but when she was partnering either of the others, expressive body-language was frustratingly absent.
Roland Wood, as the corrupt Chief of Police, fared better, yet although his rich-grained voice rang out clearly he never quite injected enough malevolence. Had there really been some menace to his character, Calleja might not have wondered casually around the stage with his hands in his pockets when being questioned by him in Act Two. A directorial blunder perhaps, and if elsewhere in this Act dramatic tension was noticeably slack, Scarpia’s death scene with a devout Metlova was moving.
It was the much sought-after Calleja who provided the real substance with a vocal armoury that combines warmth, passion and musicality. He warmed up nicely with a heartfelt ‘Recondita armonia’, and then in Act Three gave a knockout rendition of ‘E lucevan le stelle’. Other roles were also of mixed quality: Jihoon Kim served up a woolly-voiced Angelotti, Simon Wilding a suitably pious and pompous Sacristan with Rosemary Clifford a winsome Shepherd-boy. The Chorus and a collection of boy choristers were on excellent form in Act One’s ‘Te Deum’ – a muted and under-lit affair that did little to emphasise any sense of thanks – for a military victory – updated here from Marengo to Ethiopia.
Gianluca Marcianò drew assured playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra but momentum was far from smooth and, at times, greater bite and rhythmic energy would have brought dividends.