Thursday, 6 October 2016

Tosca, English National Opera, 3 October 2016

(sung in English)

Tosca (Keri Alkema), Spoletta (Scott Davies), and Scarpia (Craig Colclough)
Images: Richard Hubert Smith

Floria Tosca – Keri Alkerna
Mario Cavaradossi – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Baron Scarpia – Craig Colclough
Cesare Angelotti – Andri Björn Róbertsson
Sacristan – Adrian Powter
Spoletta – Scott Davies
Sciarrone – Graeme Danby
Gaoler – Robert Winslade Anderson
Shepherd Boy – Alessandro MacKinnon

Catherine Malfitano (director)
Donna Stirrup (revival director)
Frank Peter Schlössman (set designs)
Gideon Davey (costumes)
David Martin Jacques, Kevin Sleep (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: James Henshaw)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Oleg Caetani (conductor)


Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them. Catherine Malfitano’s production once had a somewhat literalistic yet straightforward integrity to it; now it seems simply to flounder. When I saw it previously, in 2011, the Personenregie at least proved generally accomplished; here it veers (too little rehearsal time for a revival, perhaps?) between the non-existent and the all-too-local am-dram. The lack of any discernible concept thus matters far more than previously it did. We simply have sets and costumes and wandering around. Quite why the Sacristan looks as though he comes from Shoreditch-cum-Kandahar I have no idea. Nor do I understand the weirdly inter-galactic backdrop for the third act. The rest – well, the rest is unobjectionable, yet nothing more.

Cavaradossi (Gwyn Hughes Jones) and Tosca

The ENO Orchestra, as usual, was on excellent form. Oleg Caetani summoned up some luscious sounds, especially in the third act, although I found the first act a little jocular in tone. There was, in general, a reasonable sense of line, although Caetani fell some way short of the more distinguished ‘symphonic’ realisations. (No, it is not really quite the right word, but we all know what it means in this context.) Greater variegation would also have been welcome; I never felt Caetani was engaging with anything other than the score’s (impressive) surface. Choral singing was also of a high standard; let us never forget the sterling work the chorus undertakes day in, day out.

It was not, however, a vintage night for solo singing. Keri Alkerna offered an alert performance in the title role, but it rarely caught fire until the second act, and only intermittently then. Gwyn Hughes Jones clearly has quite a following at the Coliseum. Although he certainly has vocal heft, I was unable to discern much beyond that in his Cavaradossi: his singing was generalised – far too often a problem in this role, I have found – and his acting at best rudimentary. Craig Colclough’s underpowered Scarpia came across in strangely camp fashion, at least on those occasions when his voice rose above the orchestra and/or chorus. I am all for revisionist readings, but pantomime villain faces are not a satisfactory substitute for true malevolence. The smaller roles, however, tended to impress, Andri Björn Róbertsson’s Angelotti, Scott Davies's Spoletta, and young Alessandro MacKinnon’s Shepherd Boy were all especially well presented.

There was nothing bad here, then, but nor was there much over which to rejoice. Next time, might we have something that engages with the dramatic possibilities of the work, rather than pandering to the reactionary ‘taste’ of an imaginary ‘general’ audience? The Arts Council has behaved disgracefully towards ENO, but timidity never helped anyone, and it certainly does not help Puccini.

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