Tosca, English National Opera (3/5)


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The Independent Culture

People love tinkering with ‘Tosca’, and it was a neat idea to get Catherine Malfitano – one of the great Toscas of her time – to direct the show herself.

The result was first unveiled last year: now it’s in revival, we can see more clearly how it shapes up to the work’s perennial challenges, the biggest of which lie in the central roles. Memories of Callas or Gheorghiu as Tosca, and of Sergei Leiferkus or Bryn Terfel as Scarpia, are not erased with ease, but Malfitano’s contenders – Claire Rutter and Anthony Michaels-Moore – put up a gallant display, with Gwyn Hughes Jones bravely officiating as the doomed painter Cavaradossi.

Malfitano aims to present what happened in a single day to ordinary people during a great crisis of Italian history, and she infuses the opening scenes with bristling urgency. Rutter makes her entrance like a grande dame, rather than the breathlessly naive creature we normally encounter, but she plays her opening scene – by turns tender, jealous, and ruefully mollified – with a conviction which intensifies when Scarpia starts his malevolent game. Her sound has a luxurious sweetness, to which Hughes Jones responds with silver-toned grace. Michaels-Moore may not initially project the malign power we expect, but he warms to the chase like a greedy voluptuary, his voice steadily gaining in menace.

If Frank Philipp Schlossmann’s designs for the first act uneasily meld naturalism and stylization, his solution for Scarpia’s apartment has a timeless solidity: this allows Tosca and Scarpia to play out their fateful duel as though it were some horribly convincing piece of date-rape. But the third-act design could have come straight out of a Seventies ‘Flying Dutchman’, and the direction never finds its feet. None of the act’s great moments impinge as they should: there’s no magic in the Shepherd-boy’s song, nor even in ‘E lucevan le stelle’, and the dead-march of the soldiers completely fails to chill the blood; Tosca dies in a backward stagger.

None of this is any fault of conductor Stephen Lord, who honours Puccini's exquisite blend of tenderness and cruelty. Nor should blame attach to Hughes Jones or Rutter, whose ‘Vissi d’arte’ follows a lovely arc. It all boils down to the fact that even a work as seemingly straightforward as ‘Tosca’ can be very tricky to direct.