The week in classical: Tosca; Ottone review – faith and fantasy

Coliseum; Hackney Empire, LondonChristof Loy digs for psychological depth in ENO’s time-shifting new Puccini production, while English Touring Opera’s autumn Handelfest gets off to a sparkling startA huge painted stage curtain appears at several moments throu…

A huge painted stage curtain appears at several moments throughout the German director Christof Loy’s impressive new Tosca for English National Opera. It creeps across a church wall in the first act, then into the gripping murder scene of Act 2, before eventually dominating the entire stage. Loy would seem to be providing the main characters with a massive artificial backdrop for their own personal dramas, preoccupations that sit apart from the stark collision of passion and politics unfolding on stage.

Take Scarpia, the dreaded chief of police. So chilling is Puccini’s musical motif for this brutal character, he normally need do nothing more than sweep on to the stage to send real shivers down the spine. But here, on his first entrance into the church where he believes a fugitive is hiding, he falls to his knees and writhes on the floor, acting out his unspoken lust for Tosca, almost searching for an audience among the congregation. She in turn plays up her role as the leading opera singer of her day, theatrically jealous of her lover Mario Cavaradossi while also desperate to protect him and his fellow revolutionaries from the vile Scarpia.

This is Rome in 1800, and Napoleon is advancing on Italy, and yet time is set adrift by the appearance of several powdered and bewigged figures from the previous century, apparently representing the ghostly forebears of the aristocracy that corrupt Scarpia protects so brutally. This sense of timelessness and artifice is conjured still further by dressing Tosca first in 1950s chic, then a 17th-century panniered court dress for the murder scene, and finally a 19th-century gown for the denouement, where the soldiers of the firing squad appear all in white, like ghosts, as though Tosca views them as part of her own desperate fantasy: her naive hope that her lover would be saved at the last.

From the start, Cavaradossi knows the danger he faces, and when escape looks possible he plainly does not share Tosca’s faith that he will be saved; yet even he is not immune to fantasy. In his prison cell (where, incidentally, he cannot see the stars he serenades) he sees a vision of a miniature Tosca singing the innocent song of the passing shepherd boy.

Whether or not you buy all these ideas, there is no denying that this production, receiving its UK premiere and first seen at the Finnish National Opera in 2018, is one of intense musicality, with Christian Schmidt’s elegant designs and Olaf Winter’s starkly direct lighting providing a truly grand spectacle. Sinéad Campbell-Wallace’s Tosca, in a finely calibrated performance, is a frail, trusting creature, yet with a core of steel when Scarpia makes his pact: she must give herself to him in exchange for her lover’s life. Her disgust is palpable, her resistance implacable. Yet Loy spoils her beautifully sung central aria, Vissi d’arte (here translated as Love and Music). It should be a moment of stillness, a tender reflection on a life devoted to singing and art. Instead, she is groped and taunted by Scarpia.

Cavaradossi is sung by the British tenor Adam Smith. It’s a huge sound, not always entirely focused, but one that makes an instant impact with a thrilling top. Making his ENO debut as Scarpia is the American baritone Noel Bouley. He was indisposed on opening night, but agreed to walk the part while Roland Wood sang magnificently from the book. This perhaps magnified the effect of Scarpia’s distracting personal histrionics, which so often seemed counter to the menace in Puccini’s music. Notable among the smaller parts are Lucia Lucas as the Sacristan, Msimelelo Mbali as the fugitive Angelotti and Ossian Huskinson as police agent Sciarrone. Letting light and air into Puccini’s mesmeric score – wonderfully played by the ENO orchestra – is conductor Leo Hussain.

A million miles away from the verismo world of Tosca, another tale of passion and politics opened last week: Handel’s Ottone from 1723, which goes out on the road alongside Agrippina and Tamerlano in English Touring Opera’s latest Handelfest.

Last seen in 2014, this production, with beautiful, gleaming Byzantine designs by takis, features some terrific singers, chief among them the countertenors James Hall in the title role and Kieron-Connor Valentine as his rival Adelberto. Bass Edward Jowle also impresses as the prince turned pirate Emireno. The plot – too convoluted to recount here – offers Handel the opportunity to provide plenty of vocal showcases, not least for Elizabeth Karani as the scheming Gismonda (standing in on opening night for an indisposed Gillian Webster) and Lauren Young as Matilda, torn between love for Adelberto and desire for revenge. Soprano Nazan Fikret makes a fearful yet beautifully crystalline princess Teofane. It’s conducted with admirable flair by Gerry Cornelius, with the Old Street Band in sparkling form.

This tour – visiting Poole, Malvern, Saffron Walden, Buxton, Exeter and Truro – marks a last hurrah for artistic director James Conway after 20 years of distinguished service at ETO, taking high-quality opera around the country. Many thousands of music-lovers have cause to be thankful to him and his truly national opera company.

Star ratings (out of five)Tosca ★★★★Ottone ★★★★

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