Pity and terror

A powerful, moving adaptation of Puccini

Artillery Row On Opera The Critics

It’s not often that the critic’s icy heart is penetrated by anything like pity, but it’s hard not to feel a pang for the interventionist director Christoph Loy running up against a creature as obdurate as Puccini’s 1900 opera Tosca — so specific, so tightly composed, so punchy, so stubbornly itself. What’s the poor chap to do? The whole underground car-park setting option, beloved staging resort for most Italian opera over the last 20 years, is somewhat over. In the end Puccini just forces you back to somewhere very like his chosen milieu of an eventful Rome day in 1800 when events at the battle of Marengo regrettably impinge on the lives of two rather wafty arts-world denizens.

Mad musical alchemy turns a laughable scene into existential terror

I’ve seen plenty of Loy’s stagings (this is his first at ENO), but never one as literal as this, where his titivations of Puccini roughly amount to a fake theatrical curtain that grows in size and prominence — and commensurately loses its mojo — throughout the three acts. The first time, with great effect, it rises suddenly from the side-chapel of the church of Sant’ Andrea, where it has been demurely hanging, to disclose Puccini’s Prince of Darkness Scarpia who storms into the church in a fabulously camp entrance (much aided by Puccini’s crashing tritone chords) with deathly bleak light and an pack of ratlike 18th century lackeys in black wigs … Well, welcome to the opera, indeed, where some mad musical alchemy turns a scene that could be pretty laughable into one of existential terror that gives the heart a nasty lurch. 

Tosca is a machine of terrific efficiency that (perhaps not so simply) just needs all its parts arranged and orchestrated for maximum effect, and ENO has assembled the right cast and conductor for that. There is an unaffected simplicity about the scenes of the painter Mario Cavaradossi and singer Floria Tosca’s horseplay in the church, two little love-bunnies quite unprepared for the steamroller that’s about to hit them. The English tenor Adam Smith and Irish soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace have the power and lyricism for it. She moreover somehow succeeds in making the histrionic, wildly jealous, sexually abandoned yet childishly religious young diva into more promising girlfriend material than her CV might suggest. Probably Roland Wood’s erotomaniac Scarpia doesn’t need to roll round on the floor quite so much in furious lust, but he too busts out of the cartoon role into powerful life, vocally and physically tightly coiled — very obviously a danger to life.

Loy controls the stage brilliantly, a baleful deliberateness of chorus entrances and movement that winds up the dread and tension. This is helped by Christian Schmidt’s judicious stage designs — monochrome with flashes of red (I also liked the time-coded costumes: New Look for Tosca, ancien regime for the baddies). The high point is Act 2, a single-arc, one-breath 45 minutes of drama, Loy and conductor Leo Hussain (another peripatetic Englishman we haven’t seen enough of) harnessing the pacing to sickeningly gripping effect as Mario is led to the torture chamber and Scarpia outlines to Tosca the terms of his contract: her body for her lover’s life. Again, this is all Puccini’s work, but you still have to frame it right. Here, there’s a stark clarity and unity of action and music that grabs and doesn’t let go: the horrid plod of the torture-music against the soaring cantata in the courtyard outside, the ratcheting horror of the offstage torture and Tosca’s dawning understanding, the sudden outburst of the big string tune, infinitely sad. 

Art and life collide to startling effect

Everyone knows what’s coming in Act 3 — the non-fake execution, the dive from the battlements — but the effect of Tosca is only increased by wanting to see and feel Puccini doing it again: turning this nasty tale from a tawdry piece of French salaciousness into a fearsome mechanism for creating genuine pity and terror. The dawn bells of Rome, painstakingly literal, are gradually swamped in the unbeatable artifice of Puccini’s music, as art and life collide to startling effect. The condemned Cavaradossi can’t write his will as he’s caught in dreams of sex, to one of the world’s most desperately yearning tunes (“E lucevan le stelle … ”). OK, the very end of the opera is a teeny bit overripe for modern tastes, but where else can this story possibly go? 

This is a thoroughly satisfying production — evidently much improved on the fifth night from an opener where its virtues were clear but unfulfilled. It’s a pity that as usual ENO has managed to shoot itself in the face by programming it a month before the return of Covent Garden’s old pot-boiler — a much inferior version, but of course all posh and monumental and in Italian, which still has some bizarre traction in an opera world entirely obsessed with minutiae of irrelevant snobberies. As it happens, this one might as well be sung in Albanian for all the words that stagger across the footlights (honourable exception for Roland Wood’s Scarpia), but there remains a perfectly good and honourable case for performing in English, even if the transitions are in dramatic need of a brush-up.

In the (not so) old days this show would have packed out the Coliseum with a roaring crowd. Now probably a 50 per cent house of appreciative but rather mousy hard-cores showed up — but if ENO is to woo back the audience it spent so much energy alienating, this is exactly the way to do it. That also means that knock-down tickets are to be found if you look. It runs until 4 November.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover