The scent of incense greeted us; our eyes took in the spacious transept with its tiny, fenced-off chapels. Yes, the Albert Hall made a passable cathedral – larger, perhaps, than the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, but atmospheric nonetheless.
This revival of David Freeman's arena staging of Puccini's Tosca is big on atmosphere. Audio effects like cannons, bells and offstage cantatas make terrific use of the acoustic, while the comings and goings of the ensemble along the aisles add physical immediacy. It's rather unsettling to have Chief of Police Scarpia brush your elbow on his dramatic arrival in church.
The gathering of congregation and priests around Scarpia, as his unholy desires counterpoint with the climactic "Te Deum", made for the evening's first theatrical coup, the arena flooded with golden light as the ensemble advanced en masse across it.
So, plenty to keep the eyes occupied, dramatically; from a musical standpoint, though, rather less for the ears. Sound technology has advanced for these arena presentations, but you can still make out precious little text, making an English translation (without surtitles) pretty pointless. The acoustic compromise was no help to them or the orchestra (the Royal Philharmonic, under Peter Robinson), which remained somewhat lacking in real impact.
In this first cast, Cavaradossi was Joseph Wolverton – a decent enough tenor making rather too free with the portamento and too busy "acting" in his final aria to do justice to its beauty. Nor did he make anything of Puccini's cries of "victorious" when news of Bonaparte's unexpected victory came in Act II. There is no more of an "arena" moment than this, and he blew it.
Cynthia Lawrence as Tosca, meanwhile, was vocally querulous rather than imperious, her tone quite devoid of allure – a Tosca voice well past its prime. Act II's battle of wills with Peter Sidhom's pantomimic Scarpia were reduced to unseemly skirmishes around an outsized table. She actually sang "Vissi d'arte" from atop that table, which was going a little too far to suggest she might be dessert.
But at the moment when she defiantly hurls herself from the parapet of the Castel Sant'Angelo, she was game enough to do so from in front of designer David Roger's enormous replica of the angel of Saint Michael. That the fall was in full view of the audience, from a considerable height into the blackness behind the orchestra, certainly won her the people's-opera approval rating.
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