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Don't let your daughter off the stage, Mrs Malfitano

English National Opera, Coliseum
05/18/2010 -  & May 20, 22, 27, 29, June 2, 5, 11, 17, 24, 27, July 3, 7, 10, 2010
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
Amanda Echalaz (Floria Tosca), Julian Gavin (Mario Cavaradossi), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Baron Scarpia), Pauls Putnins, (Cesare Angelotti), Jonathan Veira (Sacristan), Christopher Turner (Spoletta), James Glover (Sciarrone), Christopher Ross (Goaler), Harry Stanton (Shepherd-boy)
Chorus and orchestra of The English National Opera, Edward Gardner (conductor)
Catherine Malfitano (director), Frank Philipp Schlössmann (set designer), Gideon Davey (costume designer)

(© R. Workman)

You never forget your first Tosca. More than any other work, one's hard and fast views and prejudices about interpretation are formed from that first encounter. You can keep Callas. I was never there, so all I've got to go on are her acid-toned recordings. Tebaldi? Too regal. Price? Too much sobbing. Malfitano was my first Tosca, and I think I got a good deal. It was predictably in that astonishing 1992 TV-film, the only example of that bastard genre, the opera-film, that has any feeling for either art form. Sung without dubbing, the singers had to sync themselves to the orchestra whilst running round the actual Roman buildings that Tosca takes place in, avoiding steadycams in the process. It had the danger of a live performance (I have the TV broadcast, where you see Domingo fall down a stair case) with the razzmatazz of a Brian de Palma film. It is only just out on DVD and the critical consensus seems to deem it rather tacky but I think there is no better video of Tosca and with that voice, hair and cleavage, scarcely a better protagonist. What a singular career Catherine Malfitano has had. Before that Tosca, she was barely known here in the UK, despite a fine career elsewhere as, wait for it, a bright, soubrette soprano. From Olympias, Lulus, and Juliettes she then makes a fine, international jump into Tosca and Salome. Hers is not what you'd call a pretty voice but it's big and used with imagination and precision. She broke away from the usual warm-toned blandness that blights a lot of US singers and I can see Malfitano has a un-singerly belief in the role of director and in opera as a dramatic form.

If you think this review is meandering, though, it sadly gives a reflection of how my mind wandered during Malfitano's London directorial debut, in a Tosca that, despite much obvious care and insight, remained tepid and unfocused for at least two acts. This has nothing to do it being a traditional, 'safe' production; indeed what could be more anarchic than not caving in to ENO's insecure need to stick a bit of buggery, coke sniffing and suicide bombing somewhere on stage? Malfitano clearly has her young cast at heart, showing real consideration for the physical demands of the opera. Some neat ideas came into play. I liked giving the Sacristan a young assistant, talking to himself that much was wearing thin for me. It also made the scene with him and the choir boys a lot more chummy and real. New angles were also found between the lovers. Amanda Echalaz was less the needy diva, and more natural for it. The touches of humour where even she recognises her jealous foibles were well handled. Humour is the one thing most Toscas forget. Gavin's Cavaradossi was good here, too. But where some chicles were painted over, others remained. Angelotti still looks too clean to have escaped from prison and Scarpia's minions still all move the same way they always do. Everything ticked along predictably; the Catholic congregation were duly given all the bells and smells, the canons were fired, Scarpia looked evil...Business as usual.

The sheer width of the Coliseum stage and Schlössmann's oppressive, unwieldy sets for Palazzo Farnese robbed the second act of most tension. With Scarpia's furniture strewn around, characters tended to wander pointlessly from one side to the other. The blocking really needs sharpening here, such as Scarpia's henchmen forming a neat and tidy fan formation after dragging out Cavaradossi.
Also, like most other directors, Malfitano still hasn't found a solution to “Vissi d'arte”, instead plonking Tosca back to back with Scarpia. Fine as an image, but there is little dramatic point. A fine touch was turning the murder into a spontaneous act, Echalaz grabbing the first thing to hand. After all the hideous, Hammer horror acting I've seen from Toscas staring at the knife for several bars, this is a great cobweb to sweep away.

The third act almost belonged to a different production, thanks to the stunning, upturned recreation of Castel Sant' Angelo from Schlössmann, the star studded sky becoming the audience's back drop. I loved Malfitano's handling of the men; the prison guards larking about in the dawn sky, then the tact from the gaoler about the impending execution. But come the execution, I question the lame way Tosca stands down-stage looking at us. On such abstract sets, it didn't really register that she was watching the death of her lover. Still, Echalaz gives us a good suicide, casting herself off against the haunting beauty of the Roman sky. It's a great money shot to end on. We needed something like this earlier on. A few great details like this are still not enough to save the production from being merely ordinary.

Musically, though, this is a triumph. Echalaz's lovely instrument rides climaxes well and, for all its prettiness, there's some steel in that voice. She's a nimble actress and avoided all vocal clichés from previous Toscas. Histrionics were kept to minimum, so when she finally lets rip, describing Scarpia's death to Cavaradossi, the effect is astonishing. And one could hardly ask for a better sung Cavaradossi. Gavin's voice is not what traditionalists would call Italianate, but it rings out, golden and secure on every note, reminiscent of James King, hinting towards, maybe, a great Wagner career. Anthony Micheals-Moore, also a Covent Garden Scarpia, shows us how to succeed with a lighter voice in this killer role. Suave rather than just nice, sardonic rather than bland, his smooth, warm baritone can be evil, after all. Whether instigated by him or by Malfitano, the endless, and rather camp, evil laughs and hand flounces were the only things to break the spell of this charismatic bastard.

The orchestra regaled Edward Gardner with a cohesive, honeyed sound. It was a very lyrical, considered view of the score, different and never dull, and at key points, like the opening of the torture chamber, the claw came out, turning this refinement into brutal violence. Still, Act one needs a quicker pace from Gardner. This is a Golden age for the orchestra.

As my first ENO review, I had better touch on the translation and diction debate. Please, for the love of God, could someone update this translation of Tosca. Diligent as it is to the sound of the original Italian, shouting 'Assassin' at Scarpia is embarrassingly antiquated. Diction was pretty good, especially from the Sacristan, and in modern singers' defence, I chiefly blame that acoustic. What the elderly diction cognoscenti don't always take into account is that their Golden Age took place in Sadlers Wells' brighter sounding theatre. Laughable as having surtitles are to ENO's remit, as long as the Coliseum has this airy, consonant murdering acoustic, then they will be a necessary tautology.

With reservations, this is just about the better Tosca of the two London houses, (both coincidently, period, non interventionist stagings) and it certainly has space for maturing and developing with all the subsequent revivals and casts it will undoubtedly get but it desperately needs tightening in the first two acts and a dash of that petrol bomb force that usually is Catherine Malfitano.

Barnaby Rayfield



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