Classical review: Tosca - Adam Spreadbury-Maher's production doesn't quite meet expectations


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The Independent Culture

OperaUpClose specialises in bold transpositions, best exemplified by its witty setting of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera in an IKEA store. For Tosca their writer-director Adam Spreadbury-Maher has effected a different kind of transposition, but one which is entirely logical.

Indeed, with its police-state plot, you could argue that this opera has never been more topical: it could transplant with shocking ease to Cairo, and even, possibly quite soon, to London. But Spreadbury-Maher has set it in the dying days of Communist East Germany: to be precise, on the day of the Leipzig demonstrations after which head of state Erich Honecker resigned. His Scarpia is a captain in the Stasi, while his Angelotti helps people escape to the West.

But while the IKEA Ballo was so off-the-wall that no uncomfortable comparisons with other productions could be made, any Tosca is bound to be measured against expectations, not least because vocally it’s one of the biggest killers in the repertoire. And not so long ago Jonathan Miller did a Mussolini-period version for ENO.

It was clear from the outset that this Soho Theatre show had a lot going for it. The fateful opening chords were bravely delivered by the three-piece onstage band (cello, clarinet, piano), while the sets and costumes had an authentic dowdiness. Tom Stoddart’s Angelotti was a resonant presence, and Steven East’s charismatic Caretaker actually worked better than Puccini’s Sacristan usually does. James Harrison’s elegantly-sung Scarpia came across like a super-fit and calculatingly sinister company executive, and Becca Marriott’s Tosca had the right sort of petulance, plus bags of vocal power. The adapted libretto was unshowy and to the point.

But no Tosca should be saddled with a weak-link Cavaradossi as this one unhappily was. It wasn’t Edward Hughes’s fault that he didn’t convince as a sex-pot – though surely he didn’t have to be so unflatteringly garbed – nor that he should have come across as an amiable duffer. But his sound, though big, was frankly anything but beautiful. His Tosca strove heroically to raise the game in their encounters, but not even she could cope with a denouement which slid helplessly into comedy. With Hughes’s protracted death-throes after being shot in the head, and with her own startlingly blood-boltered suicide (having niftily hung on to the knife that killed Scarpia), it was all of a piece that the curtain-calls should be taken in an atmosphere not of doom, but of pantomime jollity.