Next week, to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Puccini, Raymond Gubbay is bringing his Tosca back to the Royal Albert Hall, with its original director, David Freeman, plus a top-flight bunch of singers including Peter Sidhom as the satanic Scarpia and Cynthia Lawrence – a Tosca veteran who often toured with Pavarotti – in the title role. As Freeman remarks, the challenge will be what it always has been with this tersely written piece: to make its torture, rape and murder feel real rather than simply melodramatic.
The theatrical challenge is more daunting in this space, which is often described as the biggest village hall in England. "It's not theatrically sophisticated," says Freeman. "You can't fly things in, or take big things on or off the stage. Everybody knows that off-stage there means Hyde Park, so you can't have off-stage screams of the torture victim – it just wouldn't work. We're trying to improve Tosca's death – we did it originally with a leap from where the organ is, but now she has a ramp rather than steps to climb. We'll be doing two versions: one for a stunt stand-in for our alternative Tosca, Paula Delligatti, and the other for Cynthia Lawrence, who is very keen to do her own 20ft jump. But in these shows, nobody can rely on their old tricks, because it's the biggest in-the-round theatre in the world, where all the rules are changed."
Since you can't have anything solid on stage (or only half the audience sees the action), the basic sets are skeletal, and are all made out of the same elements. For example, the bars of the chapel change into the torture chamber, and the floor of the church in the opening scene is a collage of different church ceilings, thus suggesting the dimension necessarily missing.
But Freeman regards the Albert Hall as ideal: "Its design is based on the Colosseum in Rome, and, like that, it gives the audience, whose seating rises almost vertically, an unusually close view of the action. And it embraces the stage – such things help us a lot."
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