Written in 1900, Puccini’s stunning Tosca reflected the political chaos in Italy during Napoleonic times, one hundred years earlier. Today the opera art form is often criticised for being outdated, anachronistic, not in sync with the zeitgeist. Whatever that means.
Psst! This is a confidential memo to Loy, and if I happen to hit the wrong email drop down button, making it visible to Reaction readers, I may have to fall on my sword. Breaching Editorial Confidentiality Code Chapter IV, iii, xixv, m, is a serious matter. Home Secretaries have resigned for less.
ACT III, final scene, is the key. Tosca Truss appears on the battlements of No10. She has by now morphed from an irritating, pushy political diva into a buffa character with no remaining political purpose. Tosca Truss is on the battlements, but no longer in the building.
Her political sidekick, Chancellor Cavaradossi Kwarteng, faces a firing squad. Lobby correspondents circle menacingly, pens poised with fatal menace. But in a clever plot twist, to save herself Tosca Truss does for him instead.
After a feisty exculpate aria, Sono una combatenta, non nua mallatora (I’m a fighter, not a quitter), Tosca Truss, pursued by Sir Graham Brady and the Executive of The 1922 Committee, leaps from the No10 battlements onto Horse Guards Parade, screeching Crescita, crescita (Growth, growth) in High C.
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Thus, a two-year period of stable government in the public interest is ushered in. Stop raising your eyebrows at the back. Opera plots are nothing to do with credibility. Ask Wagner. But they do often reflect life. One thing is for sure, the British politics aria is currently being performed da capo, on a seemingly endless doom loop.
Back at the Coli, good news to report. This Tosca is a winner. Superbly cast, especially the three principals, Floria Tosca, Irish soprano, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace; Mario Cavaradossi, British tenor, Adam Smith; and Baron Scarpia, British baritone Roland Wood.
This is an intriguing production, recognisable as a traditional Tosca but with some potentially risky new elements. I will refer to the plot as we speed along, but, for a full refresher here is a Metropolitan Opera synopsis. Oddly, the ENO does not offer a synopsis on its website.
In the opening scene Cavaradossi is given an intern – very au courant – who is eventually bundled away by Scarpia’s heavies. He has witnessed the exchanges with Cesare Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner, and former Consul of the Roman Republic.
The audience’s antennae immediately twitch. In Scarpia’s surveillance state, will the intern give the game away? An atmosphere of intrigue is established. So, in Act II, when Scarpia reassures Tosca that Cavaradossi will face a firing squad with blank bullets and instructs his agent Spoletta to arrange the execution “Just like Palmieri’s”, at which Spoletta nods sagely, we were all tuned in. There was double dealing afoot.
Importantly for ENO, singing in English instead of the original Italian, paid off. For a tragic opera Tosca is full of comic asides. Before he faces the firing squad for his “fake” execution she tells Cavaradossi that he must fall down convincingly, “Just like this”.
In the many productions I have seen I have never heard an audience laugh out loud at these bons mots. Surtitles just don’t carry the joke home in time. In the Coliseum everyone got it. LOL. ENO – 1, Purists who hate singing in English – 0.
Scarpia was sung by English baritone, Roland Wood. Noel Bouley, originally slotted for the role was indisposed. At the opening performance Bouley had acted the part while Wood sang off stage. Same on the second night.
Then Bouley tried again but eventually withdrew after a difficult performance. By the fourth outing Wood had the part to himself and a menacing Scarpia he made. All a bit like a Tory leadership election.
It is false heroism for singers to plough on through sniffles and hacking coughs when there is a perfectly capable understudy panting to have a go. Wood seized the opportunity and sang his heart out.
More than one review I read criticised Campbell-Wallace and Smith for standing too much front stage, taking them out of the action. I think this was wise direction on Loy’s part. The Coliseum stage is deep and it’s notoriously hard to carry voices to the back of the cavernous 2,300-seater auditorium.
Unless sopranos and tenors face the audience and project, their voices simply won’t be heard over the orchestra. If singers are directed to move rear stage, or turn from the audience, the conductor does have a solution. Cut the volume, so they can be heard. Which kills impact, especially in a Puccini opera where dramatic chords and punchy arias should be allowed to explode, not fizzle.
Conductor, Leo Hussain, was not for holding back. He set a blistering pace. Both Campbell-Wallace and Smith rose to the occasion. Often, the audience was poised to applaud at the end of an aria, but – rightly – Hussain swept on with the action.
I belong to the sit on your hands ‘til it’s over, school of applauding. Clapping and yowling in the middle of scenes disrupts the flow of the action and the sense of drama is deflated.
Smith has a sensitive inbuilt volume control. He ranged from ff to pp with huge skill, emphasising the psychological roller coaster he is riding. Love for Tosca, despair at her betrayal, loyalty to Angelotti.
Someone described his voice as of “incredible shimmer and blade”. I can’t do better than that. He has a commanding stage presence and is doing the rounds of European houses in roles such as Erik in Wagner’sDer Fliegender Holländer and Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Heavyweight stuff.
Campbell-Wallace was a fiery, yet pious, Tosca. Puccini’s diva is a complex character of conflicting emotions; passionate, jealous, religious to a fault – she feels morally obliged to reveal everything that happens to her in the confessional, clearly a security risk – and cunning. Her voice was never strident.
A lyric soprano who is increasingly taking on more dramatic roles, Campbell-Wallace debuted at the Salzburg Festival in 2020. Unsurprisingly for a native of Wexford – and currently resident in Ireland’s southern opera town – she has sung the role of the Princess in Conrad Susa’s Transformations at the Wexford Festival. I was sorry to see she is not on the cast list for any of next week’s festival main stage operas.
ENO is subject to constant sniping. A recent piece by the authoritative critic, Rupert Christiansen, in The Spectator called for the company to be killed off. A waste of Arts Council Money, which could be better spent on …. What? Mummery and socially aware street theatre in Barnsley? Pop-up events in Peckham?
Christiansen doesn’t say, but I think the loss of a high-quality opera company with a strong national following would be a tragedy. His argument is that with The Royal Opera House in London already, who needs ENO? Surtitles deal with the singing in a native tongue thing. He implies that ENO management is tin-eared to criticism.
I was concerned about his casual allegation that the company was teetering on a financial precipice, “struggling at times to remain a going concern”. So, I went through recent filings, especially the Auditor’s reports. This was slightly less interesting than watching a performance of Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids.
But the slog was fruitful. Christiansen is simply wrong. At no point has any qualification ever been noted in the accounts by the auditors. There are the usual caveats that all companies face about assumptions over forward income generation, but nothing on which to base Christiansen’s alarming going concern thrust.
Sadly, all opera companies are dependent on their state funders. That is as true of ENO as it is of the ROH. The real questions are, is a company well managed and does it add value to the artistic life of the country?
The ENO’s board and management have performed miracles in keeping the company – and the cash draining Coliseum Theatre – on a relatively even keel, especially during Covid.
The strategy of seeking top class partners for co-productions is building an international reputation for ENO. This Tosca is a production of Finnish National Opera. A standout – and sell-out – success was Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, co-produced with New York’s Met. At Christmas, San Francisco Opera’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the creation of American composer, Jake Heggie, is coming to town, just like Santa.
I saw Heggie’s Christmas-special tearjerker in San Francisco in 2018 – reviewed in Reaction at the time. If it’s properly marketed ENO should have a hit on their hands. Scrooge Christiansen is already predicting a flop. Bah, humbug!
Other initiatives are paying off too. There is an offer of free tickets for under 21’s, reeling in a new generation, who would otherwise give opera a body swerve. Christiansen loftily dismisses the scheme, “even teenagers recognise that anything good ought to cost them a bit”. Really? Try standing in a student bar and shouting “Free Beer”.
12,000 have so far signed up for the “Free Opera”. I found myself sitting next to two “freebies” and asked them what they thought. They were mesmerised but would not have considered crossing the threshold unless lured.
In the wider community ENO’s innovative Breathe initiative, using singing techniques to help patients recover from Covid, is proving a huge success. It’s far from a stunt. Supported by Imperial College and subject to rigorous trials – read The Lancet – the initiative promises to turn opera into practical therapy. It’s all about reaching out to next generation audiences.
The correct ENO diagnosis, in my view, is that the company is fit and well, broadening its horizons, remaining financially prudent in difficult times, producing first class work and is to be congratulated.
In February, ENO stages Richard Wagner’s The Rhinegold. Here’s a wheeze to jazz up the plot. This Nibelung dwarf politician spots the dazzling key of No10 at the bottom of the Thames, outside the Palace of Westminster. The 1922 Committee Executive – The Thames Maidens – explain that whoever gets the key will have power over the land for ever and ever, or, maybe, 44 days…
Um, … Wagner’s version is more credible.
And another thing!
Jakub Hrůša has been appointed Music Director of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The Czech conductor will pick up his baton from Sir Anthony Pappano, the outgoing director, for the 2025 season.
Pappano’s reign will have lasted 23 years. If asked what most important quality he had brought to Covent Garden, I would propose – brio!
Just watch this masterclass with Jonas Kaufman to understand his emotional connection with opera, understated mastery of scores and ability to inspire.
Hrůša has a hard act to follow, but he has adopted London as his home city, has guest conducting experience, both at ROH and with Glyndebourne on Tour.
He has said he will probably extend the Czech repertoire, which would be no bad thing. But the most reassuring point is that he seems to have no intention to offer a “new broom” approach.
Pappano has built a loyal world class team during his tenure at Covent Garden and kept his house in the topflight of international opera houses. Hrůša is fortunate to have a sound foundation upon which to build.
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