Small-scale gestures pay a grand dividend

Tosca Royal Albert Hall London
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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; 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 character Tosca 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 Two, Act Three often misses the target, even if the bullets that kill Cavaradossi don't, and Tosca's climatic 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.

The sound is not equally kind to all the voices, and it lends the BBC Concert Orchestra under Peter Robinson a Friday Night is Music Night blatancy, not wholly inappropriate in Puccini.

Susan Bullock's Tosca rightly dominates proceedings, the tone fevered and sincere if sometimes spread too thin. John Uhlenhopp's Cavaradossi fairs 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, although a little 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 wholly viable set of possibilities, not the least of which is being able to follow the drama moment by moment. In Puccini, that pays rich dividends.