MUSIC / Great singing, but where was the blood?

Tosca - Grand Theatre, Leeds
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The Independent Culture
Opera North's press release is headed "Josephine Barstow sings Tosca", and in this revival of Ian Judge's intelligent 1988 production, the heroine does engage most of our attention and nearly all our sympathy. But to describe her as "one of Britai n's foremost singing actresses" does Barstow an injustice. Her vocal technique enables her to act superlatively through music; perhaps she lacks the power of former years, but she has also honed the hard edges of her voice and developed her softer colour s anddiction to the extent that, purely vocally, her Tosca has the quality of great acting.

That she also moves exquisitely, registers every feeling facially, and thus conveys every nuance of her emotions, should lead us to designate her not a singing actress but a supreme actress among singers.

Given excellent support, Barstow leads the most riveting of the four Toscas I have seen in Leeds. The audience was too gripped to applaud the arias; "Vissi d'arte" was followed by a pin-dropping silence. All the odder that someone tried to clap Scarpia'sharsh speech in the silence before the aria; Barstow's first phrase, barely audible but of frightening intensity, was only the most obvious demonstration of her superlative control.

The production itself comes up freshly in the hands of revival director Jonathan Alver.There are good new touches; at the apparition of Scarpia, the terrified and tipsy sacristan (an excellent cameo by Andrew Slater) crashes down compete with his ladder,and Cavaradossi is brutally murdered in a KGB-type execution with pistols. In Gerald Howland's attractive designs the starlit sky cannot prevent the Castel Sant'Angelo (Act III) looking like the interior of the church for which the set served in Act I, but it is better disguised by drapery as Scarpia's dining-room (Act II). Otherwise, the setting is updated by costumes of the early 20th century; one cannot imagine the original Scarpia dining in shirt-sleeves.

Problems remain in Act III, where dramatic pacing is not helped by the wildly gesticulating conductor, Stefano Ranzani. His rapport with the stage was impeccable, but he over-indulged slow tempi; while Act II gained horror from the sheer beauty emanatingfrom the pit, the final act lacked cogency. This is partly because Scarpia is already dead, leaving us with the vocally splendid but otherwise rather wooden Cavaradossi of Patrick Power, who could learn from the passionate energy with which William Peelendowed his fellow-revolutionary Angelotti. Though his voice rang out grandly over the Te Deum, Matthew Best is no stereotypically grandiloquent Scarpia; not naturally a dominating figure on stage, he contrives to suggest the police chief's nastiness iscompensating for some undefined physical defect and that he is manipulating Tosca because he cannot get a woman any other way: a sinister and highly effective reading.

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