Picture, if you will, Christmas at the Rutter-Gadd household. Engineering-graduate turned award-winning baritone, Stephen Gadd is slaving over a hot stove, dousing the spuds in a lava of goose fat to get that perfect golden crisp. Meanwhile, "lustrous British soprano" (New York Times), Claire Rutter is relaxing by the fire in between exhausting runs of Tosca at the ENO, reminiscing perhaps about family Christmases of yore, growing up in South Shields (might she have met, over one such festive meal, her father's cousin, the eminent soprano, Ingrid Hagemen?). Back in the present, Michael Bublé's Christmas album is purring out of the stereo somewhere in the background (she loves his "old-fashioned style"). Later they will be entertaining at Windsor Castle ("a great honour"). And then, on the 31st, they'll be teaming up for a Viennese gala at Winchester Cathedral to raise money for a local charity, waltzing into the New Year with a spot of Strauss Jr.
It was the death of her father, in 1980, and afterwards, delving into the dustier recesses of his old record collection, that led Claire Rutter to opera and to Tosca. She'd grown up listening to pop music and still loves David Soul and Gary Glitter. The closest she'd come to the opera was singing in the chorus of HMS Pinafore at the age of twelve. But she'd always been fascinated by the sound of orchestras on the radio, the peculiar timbre of such force and richness squeezed through extremes of compression and the faint hum of interference. She'd begged for violin lessons, to no avail. But it was that first hearing of Tosca, the sweet legato of Renata Scotto pealing forth the 'Vissi d'arte' blasted out of the stereo at full volume. The Act Three interlude still brings her to tears. Back then, she would intersperse those Tosca listening sessions with bits of Sting singing 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da' for a spot of light relief.
She decided that day she was going to be an opera singer. The school's career officer didn't know quite what to say, but, as she recalls, "Everyone said I looked like an opera singer."
Claire Rutter has returned to Tosca many times since then. Always coming back to the Royal Opera House in the ‘80s and ‘90s for each revival when she was a student at Guildhall. One time, watching the opera on a big screen outdoors in the rain, she saw Stephen Gadd singing Angelotti, it was his professional debut. She left before the last act, already soaked to the skin, little suspecting that one day they would be married with children.
She refused the role twice, even though she was "desperate" to sing the part. Only in 2004 did she sing her first Tosca, at the ENO. It was a revival of David McVicar's "chilly exercise in erotic transgression and sadomasochistic extremism" (The Guardian) but the director wasn't there to rehearse the revival, the Coliseum had just been refurbished, and she felt rushed onto the stage. "I didn't feel comfortable," she recalls, "although it was a success, as I hadn't found my feet in the role. I now feel I pace the opera better, and leave some voice for Vissi d'arte!"
The present production looks for the softer, sweeter side of the character. "I'm usually a feisty Tosca," Rutter explains, "but Catherine Malfitano said that I looked like I knew how to fight, (with three older brothers I guess that comes across!) and I'd probably just stab Scarpia at the top of Act Two!"
Rutter found herself "quite in awe" of her director, Catherine Malfitano, who had, after all, delivered such a legendary Tosca, opposite Placido Domingo, in a 1992 film directed by Brian Large, with each scene shot in the precise location, and at the precise time of day, in which it's set. "She's a strong personality," Rutter avers, "and had very firm ideas on how her Tosca was to be portrayed. I didn't mind, as I found it challenging and fresh. I find this portrayal the most complete I've ever done. This Tosca has everything, and we've missed no moment."
It's a long way from that first rushed performance seven years ago. Having since sung the part at the Opéra National de Bordeaux and The Grange Park Opera in Hampshire, The Sunday Times now calls her "the only British soprano" for the role. But that's not to say it's a walk in the park. "It's vocally a roller-coaster of a role," Rutter admits, "the backward fall at the end of the opera is one of the most physically challenging things I've ever done on stage, and Catherine Malfitano was very insistent I should do it. It's taken my performance to another level." But more than anything, it's the legacy of the role, it’s history that daunts, with so many great sopranos having sung those lines before. "They are big shoes to fill."
As the New Year dawns Claire Rutter is already looking forward to new challenges. She's been offered some Wagner and she's still debating with herself whether to take the role. "I've turned down Isolde twice, and I'm thinking about the latest offer. The trouble is, I go straight into a major bel canto role after the Wagner, and they are so far apart in style. I need to consider whether I can specialise in the bel canto alongside Wagner! I love the Italian repertoire so much, and am so well suited to it, that I'm not sure why I would want to go in a different direction yet. Still, never say never!"
Tosca continues its run at ENO from Tuesday 17 January, for four performances only. www.eno.org.
- Robert Barry