There are sound reasons for having a small Puccini-fest to start the season. Tosca is always a draw, and Turandot is probably the only opera composed this century to have become truly popular. Separated by 25 years (Turandot, unfinished when the composer died in 1924, was premiered in 1926), the operas succeed for all the old, reliable reasons: dramatic stories; simple, undangerous, unchromatic melodies for the humming; a bit of death, a bit of love, perhaps a bit of redemption thrown in. By following a basic menu throughout his life - with considerable artistry - Puccini pleased thousands, ended up a millionaire, and was able to carry on shooting duck to the end of his days.
And as it turned out, it wasn't an unadventurous start to the season either. ENO's Tosca is a production in the familiar Coliseum style - which is to say it's one that some people (all those who can't bear a director having ideas about his production) will not enjoy. There are some alarming moments in Keith Warner's production, to be sure - but, well, Tosca's an honest melodrama at heart, and a bit of messing around with it may be just what it needs.
Cavaradossi is a painter, Tosca is a diva. Motifs of acting and artifice are scattered throughout the libretto. The production's style is derived from these facts. A proscenium arch, dangling in thin air, follows Tosca around; her aria 'Vissi d'arte' is applauded by the evil Baron Scarpia as well as by the audience; after murdering Scarpia, Tosca walks on to a stage that has sprung up behind her, and gazes out at a phantom audience. The murder, we are to believe, is her finest performance.
This kind of thing is goodish fun, unless it interferes with the music. What were those pictures of Marlon Brando doing stuck up on Scarpia's wall? I wondered throughout Act II. Did that statue of the Madonna need to turn into Tosca herself, Rosalind Plowright perched on high, a fevered imagining of Scarpia's imagination? The final coup de theatre, a new angle to say the least on Tosca's suicide leap, is striking; but it dissipated the music's impact.
Tosca herself, naturally enough, is the key. Rosalind Plowright is a fine singer, and she acts, really acts: her Tosca is a convincing prima donna, Maria Callas meets Joan Collins. Her voice was stretched up top, but down below it continued the Callas theme, with dark, swallowed, nasal tones. Without Plowright, this production would not work, it's that simple. With her it does, and you follow her every move avidly.
Other performances aren't up to her standard (except perhaps the Sacristan, the 'funny' role, well played and not hammed up by Andrew Shore). Henk Smit was not a good choice for Scarpia: there's little natural darkness to his voice, which means he can never quite sound the baddy he should be. Scarpia played for laughs really is a departure. Cavaradossi - David Rendall - was suffering from an allergy on Wednesday but sang on, coughing. He'll probably be good; certainly he was given no help by the otherwise splendid orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson. Nobody would have blamed the players if they'd raced a bit through his set pieces, but Cavaradossi's allergy contended with some of the slowest tempi of the evening.
At least this Tosca brings some new ideas into the opera house, even if the opera can't quite support them. It's more than can be said for the Royal Opera's Turandot. Ten years old, it's what you imagine all opera will be like until you actually go and see one. Characters cartwheel on and off; great masks hang ominously from poles; anonymous figures populate the stage at all times. Sit back and enjoy the music if you like, but be warned: a big green man, or a member of his family, or one of his retainers, will soon be on stage distracting you.
Apart from Liu and a commedia dell'arte Ping, Pang and Pong (Simon Keenlyside a funny, well sung Ping), there isn't much acting in the production. The Prince, Giuseppe Giacomini, is no thespian, but he sang 'Nessun dorma' beautifully. His classic Italian tenor has less power, perhaps, than the chaps in the Dodger Stadium, but quite as much subtlety. A palpable hush greeted the onset of the aria, and for once in the evening the stage cleared. Even in this, Puccini's most modern opera, stalked sheepishly by the shades of Debussy and even, perhaps, Schonberg, it's the big tune that counts in the end.
Not many of the characters in Turandot, a 'mannered' opera in the composer's own words, are likely to engage, which makes the success of Liu the slave girl even more remarkable. Elizabeth Norberg- Schultz sang Liu's aria 'Tu che di gel sei cinta' clearly, innocently, touchingly, and provided the evening's high point. For what it's worth, it was her Covent Garden debut. The American soprano Sharon Sweet, as Turandot, didn't have the subtlest voice, but she was powerful and accurate, which is what the role needs.
If you want something spectacular, but not greatly challenging, this Turandot is the one to go for. If you want to come away thinking, even if perhaps enraged, make it Tosca.
'Tosca', Coliseum, 071-836 3161. 'Turandot', Royal Opera House, 071-304 4000.
Michael White returns next week.