Opera: Intimacy on a grand scale

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The Independent Culture



IN LAST year's production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly, the director David Freeman showed that the scale of the Albert Hall need not get in the way of dramatic intimacy. As he said at the time, boxers don't box big at the Albert Hall; similarly, the key for singers is not to act big and operatic, but to draw the audience into the clinches.

The same composer's Tosca poses different problems, not least because the eponymous heroine does, indeed, act big and operatic. Not for her Butterfly's sweet stoicism. She is someone who makes an aria out of a crisis, and the relationship that matters in the opera is not between Tosca and her lover Cavaradossi, but between Tosca and the lecherous chief of police, Scarpia. Since she kills him at the end of Act 2, Act 3 often misses the target, even if the bullets that kill Cavaradossi don't, and Tosca's climactic suicide all too easily seems the desperate act of a foolish woman.

It is to the credit of Freeman's staging that the tension is sustained through that final act, so that Tosca's suicide has something of the force of meaningful sacrifice. There is a genuine verismo whiff to the production, right down to the reek of incense that fills the nostrils as you enter the auditorium. The details, though, do not crowd out the drama, and David Roger's spare but evocative sets use every inch of the arena, while leaving room for Freeman's attentive mise-en-scene: Cavaradossi's easel has the look of a gallows, warning us that he, like Tosca, will die for his art.

Sung in Amanda Holden's succinct translation, the opera benefits from amplification that may blur some musical contours in unnatural perspectives, but allows the drama to breathe. The sound is not kind to all the voices, and lends the BBC Concert Orchestra under Peter Robinson a "Friday Night is Music Night" blatancy, not wholly inappropriate to Puccini.

Susan Bullock's Tosca dominates proceedings, the tone fevered and sincere if sometimes spread too thin. John Uhlenhopp's Cavaradossi fares less well, the microphone emphasising a sense of strain, but this is, after all, a man at the end of his tether. Keith Latham's Scarpia is all brute bluster; more subtlety might not go amiss.

With cleanly etched cameos from the supporting cast, this is a real ensemble performance. Opera on this scale will never supplant opera house performances, but in the right hands, it offers a different and viable set of possibilities, not the least of which is being able to follow the drama moment by moment. And in a composer such as Puccini, that pays rich dividends.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper