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Review: Tosca (West Horsley Place)

Grange Park Opera unveils its new home with Puccini's popular shocker

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Joseph Calleja as Cavaradossi in Tosca (Grange Park Opera)
© Richard Lewisohn

In Werner Herzog's 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo was the loopy visionary who pulled a riverboat over a mountain and built an opera house in the Peruvian rain forest. Wasfi Kani, in her slightly more earthly way, is the modern British equivalent.

The founder of Grange Park Opera faced oblivion for her company when, two years ago, her agreement with the stately pile they called home terminated her tenancy agreement with effect from summer 2016. The company's prospects seemed peripatetic at best until the chance discovery of run-down West Horsley Place in leafy Surrey lit a gleam in her eye. In short order a new opera house was commissioned and this week, still swathed in bare plywood and MDF, it opened for business.

And it is a beauty. The acoustic is vivid if a little dry at present (the decor will soften that when it's complete), the cramped second-hand seats betray their origins in the Royal Opera House amphitheatre, and the yomping estate is more redolent of Glastonbury than Glyndebourne; but a stone's throw from the M25 magic is happening. Britain has a new opera house.

Opening night was prolonged by introductory speeches, two intervals, an overrunning investors' dinner and, at 10.00 pm, the results of the election exit poll announced from the stage by Jonathan Dimbleby. Yet it all felt right somehow: chaotic and celebratory, like the place itself. It took them the best part of five hours to plough through Puccini's Tosca, one of the shorter operas in the repertory.

To sing Cavaradossi, GPO has lured perhaps the world's leading tenor in Italian repertory, Joseph Calleja. That's a casting coup on a par with Fitzcarraldo's Caruso. And the Maltese tenor was on imperious form, wired and explosive in a role he was born to play. To hear Calleja sing "Recondite armonia" and "E lucevan le stelle" in close-up was an experience not to be missed.

Director Peter Relton's no-frills staging attempts little beyond a perfunctory updating of the action to Mussolini's time, but I imagine rehearsal time was limited. You'd never have guessed that from Calleja's intense performance, but Ekaterina Metlova in the title role was less comfortable about winging it, even though she sang with a power that matched her illustrious stage partner. The Russian soprano parked and barked on the stage efficiently but with scant eye contact or purposeful movement. More convincing was Roland Wood as a businesslike Scarpia, vocally urbane if a mite underpowered in such company.

The police chief's youthful henchmen seemed way too unhench for the business of henching, but the reliable Adam Tunnicliffe sang a fine Spoletta, Simon Wilding brought the Sacristan to convincing life and Jihoon Kim made a striking impression as the prisoner Angelotti.

The heroes of the evening, though, were designer Francis O'Connor, creator of some evocative three-dimensional sets, and David Plater, whose spectacular lighting lent a sheen of class to the stage picture. Most of all, Gianluca Marciano and the superb BBC Concert Orchestra delivered an account of Puccini's score that was as balefully eloquent as you'll hear anywhere.

Tosca runs in repertory at West Horsley Place until 2 July.