Catherine Malfitano’s staging of Tosca is back at ENO, after having premiered in May of last year. I warmed to it when it was new, but am less enthusiastic this time round. It just looks, well, a bit naff now. Maybe part of the problem was that this revival’s Tosca, Claire Rutter, had sung the role here previously but in David McVicar’s tragically short-lived mise-en-scène, and seeing her again reminded me of McVicar’s preferable take on the work.
It also didn’t help that the first night audience was one of the worst behaved I can remember, all but obliterating the wonderful start to the third act with coughing of such magnitude that I thought a thousand Violettas were in the audience. And who was the idiot who kept applauding at every pause in the music? Here’s a helpful tip – if you’re going to an opera you don’t know, wait and see when everyone else applauds. Admittedly conductor Stephen Lord allowed breaks for applause after ‘Recondita armnoia’, ‘ Vissi d’arte’ and ‘E lucevan le stella’ and unfathomably, applause broke out midway through the first act, which I’ve never witnessed before in this opera.
Otherwise Lord’s contribution is one of the main reasons to catch this revival. Maybe he should have reined in the orchestra a bit more, but secretly I am glad he didn’t as he secures playing that is at once bold, rich and sensuous, bringing out a wealth of colour from the score. The orchestra play their hearts out for him, and the Te Deum which concludes Act One is overwhelming.
In the title role Claire Rutter produces thrilling high notes which come across with a laser-like intensity, she acts the part well – but comes a cropper with the low-lying reaches of the part, which fail to project. Having said that she’s one of the most musical Toscas I’ve heard, and she looked far more comfortable than in her last appearance here in Mike Figgis’ execrable attempt at staging Lucrezia Borgia.
Similarly Gwyn Hughes Jones is far more engaging as Cavaradossi than he was as Calaf in Rupert Goold’s Turandot- fiasco – his voice having plenty of Italian ‘tinta’, but for some reason he and Rutter fail to convince as lovers.
If Anthony Michaels-Moore had sufficiently dark and booming low notes, his Scarpia would be world class, but many of them get lost, and he only comes into his own when singing higher up the stave. Still, he has a malevolent stage presence and sparks fly in his confrontation with Tosca in Act Two.
Malfitano’s staging lurches unconvincingly from the realistic to the abstract. Act Three reminded me of a 1960’s staging of ‘The Ring’ when it was new, but this time Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s set looks more like a skate-boarding park to me. Tosca’s backwards-flip is a nice twist on the usual leap from the ramparts but I kept remembering moments from Christopher Alden’s radical take on the work (Opera Australia), and ultimately was left hankering after something a bit more daring.