Tosca – melodramma in three Acts to a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica, based on the play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou [sung in the English translation by Edmund Tracey, with English surtitles]
Floria Tosca – Sinéad Campbell-Wallace
Cavaradossi – Adam Smith
Scarpia – Noel Bouley / Roland Wood
Angelotti – Msimelelo Mbali
Sacristan – Lucia Lucas
Spoletta – John Findon
Sciarrone – Ossian Huskinson
Gaoler – Ronald Nairne
A girl – Matilda McDonald
English National Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Christof Loy – Director
Christian Schmidt – Designer
Olaf Winter – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 30 September, 2022
Venue: The Coliseum, London
English National Opera launched its new season with grand opera grandly staged, with singers who thrived in the Coliseum. Christof Loy’s staging – this was Loy’s ENO debut – was first seen in Helsinki in 2018, The designer Christian Schmidt has presented a generalised and impressive Roman baroque interior of a church in Act One that adapts easily to Scarpia’s apartment, the latter complete with a Putin-style very long table in Act Two, all ultra-realistic except for a huge brocaded and swagged curtain that silently plays a big part in shaping the action. For the execution, Act Three is the only site-specific set, the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo with St Peter’s in the background.
Any directorial nuance is down to the costumes, and here Loy and Schmidt confuse things, with our first sight of Cavaradossi and Tosca in contemporary dress, Scarpia and his henchmen in black, braided frock coats and soldiers in ghostly, baroque white wigs and uniforms, I suppose flagging up modern liberal ideals being oppressed by boo-hiss fascistic authority, possibly proposing the notion that Tosca is an opera for all time, which it never wasn’t – all of which, however eye-catching, undermines Puccini’s most cohesive verismo drama. There are also a couple of unscripted or adapted roles – a silent young assistant for the artist Cavaradossi who makes you wonder how or if he is going to be used later on (he isn’t); then there was the Shepherd-boy at the start of Act Three, whose innocent song was sung by the vision of a young girl dressed as Tosca in all her diva pomp to register Cavaradossi’s pre-execution delirium.
The direction in Act One was unfocused, with a weirdly hyper-active Angelotti (Msimelelo Mbali), while the Te Deum finale, that cynical conjoining of church and state, was an anti-climactic mess, with Scarpia rolling around in the nave of the church in sexual frustration and then seizing the cardinal’s hand to kiss his ring. Set against that, however, was a terrific staging of Act Two, suggestive, uncluttered, unbearably tense, the great singer Tosca, divested of the layers of her magnificent nineteenth-century gown, seeming to connive in her own rape, adding even more darkness to the squalid morality and making her complicit in her lover’s execution. And Cavaradossi had no doubt that he is doomed. The progress of everything reducing to the despair of ‘Vissi d’arte’ was brilliantly plotted.
It was also powerfully sung by Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, who was totally convincing in the aria’s shades of pathos and betrayal, and if her Tosca was a bit too coquettish in Act One, she acted out a gripping mix of confliction and courage in Act Two as the role snapped into focus. Campbell-Wallace has been a fine Mimì for ENO, but Tosca is a better fit for the size, if not always the warmth, of her voice and a formidable stage presence. Her bloodthirsty cries of ‘Die, Die’ over the fatally wounded Scarpia were hair-raising, reminding us how the Italian ‘Mori, mori’ does it so much better. She was well matched by the handsome Cavaradossi of Adam Smith, whose big tenor moments, such as his ‘Victoria’ heroics, left no-one in doubt of range and vocal stamina; in the quieter music, his voice could do with more oil of sweetness. As Scarpia, the American baritone Noel Bouley was unwell, but acted and lip-synched the role on the stage, with Roland Wood singing from the wings. If, in good health, Bouley’s voice matches his superb acting, this Scarpia will be quite something, as the role was as sung by Roland Wood, an uncompromising portrayal of all the factors that make evil great.
Apart from some less-is-often-more misgivings, Loy’s staging does Tosca proud, while Leo Hussain and the ENO Chorus and Orchestra entirely get how Puccini realises the drama’s pitiless grandeur and cynicism – the soldiers’ march to and from the execution was as bleakly insouciant as I have heard it.