OPERA / Leap in the dark: Edward Seckerson on English National Opera's new Tosca

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The Independent Culture
The diva's distress was the least of the problems blighting ENO's new Tosca. Producer Keith Warner and his designer John Conklin had ideas but limited stagecraft, the conductor Sir Alexander Gibson was hopelessly at sea, and that excellent tenor David Rendall gamely struggled against a debilitating allergy. Which left Scarpia.

The visceral shock of the Scarpia theme, hammered out tutta forza in the opening bar of the piece, was here underlined by his louring presence - an ominous figure picked out of the darkness in an unforgiving shaft of light. An attention-grabbing opening, certainly. But Scarpia gets everybody's attention in Act 1. Warner flies out half the set for his first entrance - a highly theatrical gesture placing him upstage beneath a gigantic statue of the Madonna. Tosca is his Madonna fixation. And there you have it, the old sex and religion equation, Act 1 of Puccini's 'shabby little shocker' in a nutshell. Except that Warner isn't about to leave it at that. In an elaborate coup during the closing Te Deum, the Madonna becomes Tosca reaching out for him from her gilded pedestal, confronting him with his own blasphemous desires. And then the congregation turn and we see that they are all in chains - Scarpia's political prisoners. Talk about spelling it out.

But the main thrust of Warner's 'concept' concerns Tosca, the diva, on stage. Her whole life is 'on stage'. Her whole life is a performance. A gilded proscenium follows her everywhere - even Scarpia's rooms become her stage. And Act 2 is her greatest performance. Scarpia applauds her big aria. She takes a bow after his murder. Candles from the footlights are placed at his head. All of which requires much raising and lowering of scenery and a number of distracting side-shows. The characters become almost incidental. About as substantial as cut-outs in a Pollocks toy theatre.

Henk Smit's Scarpia might have been more effective if his fidgeting had been curbed. Too sprightly, too buffo. And the voice lacks that seductive, insinuating legato. The menace is in the lyricism. The case of Rosalind Plowright is a sad one. One can only hope that with encouragement her confidence can be regained. That, I think, is the root of the problem. The wonderfully dusky colour of the voice is still there - the middle and lower registers in great condition - and when she is supporting the sound, she can phrase like a real artist. But there is a cut-off now around the high B flat ('Vissi d'arte' came to grief on that very note) and anything thereabouts or above she either snatched at or didn't sing at all. And a Tosca without top notes? It shouldn't bear thinking about. She looked as handsome as ever in ecclesiastical purple.

But Plowright and everybody else on stage and in the pit were further hampered by conducting from Sir Alexander Gibson that was unworthy of this or any other major opera house. Puccini's lyricism was nowhere, his melodies shapeless and halting. Expressive corners were awkwardly turned, rubato sticky, ensemble untidy. Anxious looks from the stage suggested little confidence in the speed of his reflexes. Singers were running out of breath before any response was forthcoming from the podium. A distressing evening, then. But one that managed neatly to avert at least one popular operatic disaster. This must be the first production in which we actually see Tosca's fall from the battlements of the Castel Sant' Angelo. And she isn't about to bounce back.

To 27 Oct (Booking: 071-632 8300)

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