English National Opera, in rep until 10 July
La Fille du régiment
The Royal Opera, in rep until 3 June
Tosca has had several new productions at ENO in the past 20 years which have proved rapidly perishable. It’ll be interesting to see whether the new production, with set designs by Frank Philipp Schlössmann and the direction in the hands of Catherine Malfitano, proves more durable, though I think it is certain that one major modification will be effected.
The opening chords, giving the audience a pretty vivid impression of what it would be like to be a torture victim of Scarpia’s, were tremendous, immensely loud and crushing, and throughout the evening the chief source of my pleasure was in the orchestral playing. I don’t think I have ever heard the ENO orchestra on finer form, and in the past couple of years, under Edward Gardner, standards have noticeably risen. What I found much less satisfying was the shaping of musical phrases into paragraphs, or even sentences. Gardner tends to fall in love with particular chords or passages, revels in their colours, but fails to join them up. In this opera, the predominant impression of which should be urgency, tending towards panic, it is fatal to have the feeling that we are constantly pausing to take breath, but that was how it seemed. Puccini does scatter detailed instructions over his scores, but they must be borne along on the flood.
Not that Gardner and his performers stuck to the composer’s instructions bar for bar. Yet again I have to point out that Cavaradossi’s opening short aria, ‘Recondita armonia’, is marked, both in the vocal and the orchestral parts, dolcissimo and pianissimo throughout. Cavaradossi is musing wonderingly on the strange harmony of diverse beauties, but who would guess it from the fortissimo gusto with which Julian Gavin belted it out, abetted by Gardner? No doubt it is easier to sing it like that, but on the rare occasions when anyone takes notice of Puccini the effect is much more striking.
In general, both the singing and acting were treated broadly, and, like almost everything about the production, were extremely traditional. In interviews there has been a lot of stress on Malfitano’s familiarity with the title role in particular, but the interpretation of Tosca she had imparted to Amanda Echalez had only a handful of individuating features, the chief of which was the horror with which she contemplated having murdered Scarpia, something that was still apparent when she recounted it to Cavaradossi in Act III. Malfitano emphasised in interview that Tosca and Cavaradossi are passionately in love, and should have their hands all over one another throughout the Act I duet; but they didn’t; mostly they stood, in traditional manner, several yards apart and sang out into the auditorium. Anthony Michaels-Moore is a habituated Scarpia, and delivers an ultra-smooth account of his music, while acting with understated menace; I wasn’t frightened, as one can be. The murder was exceptionally well done, the most effective moment in the opera.
Now, the settings: for the first two acts, they could have been Zeffirelli working on a severely restricted budget. One recognised St Andrea dalla Valle straightaway, and, though its columns were two-dimensional, it was, in intent, as traditionally naturalistic as possible. The same with the Farnese Palace. But as Tosca left the scene in the last bar of Act II suddenly we had a momentary glimpse of the cosmos as revealed by the Hubble telescope. Weird. And when the curtain rose on Act III we appeared to be looking at a spacecraft, with the same cosmic image beyond. No furniture, though the firing squad was as usual. But then absurdly, since there were no stairs for Tosca to run up, the soldiers appeared and shouted to one another to catch her, but stayed where they were, about a yard from her. Finally, she ran to the tip of the craft, and leapt off it backwards, quite a coup, but what on earth possessed the designer and his accomplices to do that?
The other urgent change is to the English translation. It is the venerable one by Edmund Tracey, but it sounds odd and has many misplaced accents, and a generally musty feel.
The previous evening was one of triumph at the Royal Opera. I am not a great admirer of Donizetti on second-rate form, but La Fille du régiment, such an enormous success three years ago, was even better this time round, with an almost identical cast. Really it would hardly matter who else was singing as long as the miraculous Natalie Dessay and the prodigious Juan Diego Flórez were in the main roles. Dessay sings as wonderfully as she acts, and looks the part of the waif to perfection: it would be exhausting to see her expend so much energy if it weren’t clear she has a limitless supply — just as it seems that Flórez thrives on the top Cs Donizetti throws at him. He is a capable actor, too, and the pair are now so familiar with their parts and with one another that this is a deserved classic. It’s a pity that the work isn’t as good as its performance, but it might have driven the audience to dangerous levels of deliriousness if it had been.