Tosca- Scottish Opera Review

Rating: ★★★½☆
This review appeared first at Opera Britannia

Scottish Opera’s revival of Anthony Besch’s Tosca offers a rewarding evening, though not one without its problems. Vocally, this is a Tosca not to be missed. Unfortunately, most of the evening is marred by insensitive conducting and far too much noise from the pit.

The production itself has been a very successful one and surely owes the company no debts now. This is, believe it or not, the eighth time it has been revived and it has done more globetrotting than Scottish Opera productions usual manage, being seen as far afield as New Zealand and the USA. Such success is based on a solid, confident director who clearly knew what he was doing by updating the action to 1940s fascist Italy. It is immensely pleasing to look at and fits its shiny jackboots perfectly.

We begin, of course, in church. The church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome to be precise. And we begin at something of a gallop as Paul Carey Jones races onto the stage from behind a wonderfully painted pillar: as Angelotti, the prisoner on the run from the regime, Jones presented a terrified figure searching for safety. Vocally, he was excellent – the only trouble with his character being that Angelotti comes to a bad end all too soon and the glorious singing is silenced. Jones left us wishing for much more and that is a good place to leave us.

Meanwhile, David Morrison gave some good comic business as the befuddled Sacristan but whatever he was doing was completely overwhelmed by the volume of the orchestra. Here and at many points during the evening the band were simply far too loud. At one point in the first Act, the back of the stage was filled with a large chorus who were apparently singing but rendered almost completely inaudible by the goings on below. They moved their lips but the effect was more of a silent movie than of going to the opera. The music shone like the sun in Francesco Corti’s hands but a sun which completely eclipsed all we had come to see and hear. If one can’t hear the singing at all then one might as well be at an orchestral concert. Or, heaven forefend, the ballet.

There was lots of detail going on in the background to catch the eye whilst the ear was deafened. Some of the liturgical business in church was a little odd though. Did people in Italy in the 1940s really cross themselves and genuflect towards a holy water stoup, even if it was surmounted with a Madonna and child? I have my doubts, but whether they did or they didn’t, no Italian bishop ever appeared centre stage at the front of a liturgical procession. Some of the liturgical carelessness could be forgiven by the presence on stage of the most glorious cope and mitre this side of the alps but other things which niggled suggested a production which needed to wear a little more of its heart on its sleeve. There was no water in the aspergillum, no incense in the thurible and worst of all, no blood on Tosca’s hands despite a rather energetic stabbing of the villain. Was it all perhaps just a little too neat and tidy?

Which brings us to Tosca herself.

Susannah Glanville’s Tosca was a revelation. She was marvellously histrionic and clearly something of an emotional handful. She raided the perfect diva’s toolbox and offered us every possible swoon, fluttered eyelash and gasp imaginable. And she could sing like a linnet too. Emotionally, Miss Glanville left one feeling entirely drawn into her passions and fears. Her voice was never less than beautiful, even amidst all her troubles. However, here again there was trouble from below, as chief amongst her torments were the orchestra who nearly drowned out much of her more gentle singing. Notwithstanding that, one was still left secure in the knowledge that this was a first rate performance and that Tosca’s tragedy was Miss Glanville’s triumph. After stabbing the chief of police at the end of Act Two, this Tosca was visibly a whole whirlpool of emotion and her gentle setting down of two candles by his corpse was at once both tender and chilling.

Wonderfully, the two other male leads were tiptop too. José Ferrero’s Cavaradossi was the stable point about which Tosca’s emotional world whirled. At first, I was unsure whether there was going to be enough of a vocal palette of colours for this painter to draw upon. But Ferrero’s voice quickly warmed up and a rather narrow and slightly constricted sound soon gave way to something much more satisfying. His duet passages with Miss Glanville in the final act were by far the most emotionally successful moments of the entire evening – a glorious paean to freedom – and, joy of joys, Puccinni gives us them unaccompanied.

Star of the show though was undoubtedly Robert Poulton’s Baron Scarpia. It did not so much feel that Poulton owned this stage but that in his fascist outfit he would sooner or later own every stage. His was a villain who clearly did bad things before breakfast and had made cruelty his career. And yet he was mesmerising. Poulton’s was also the voice which was best able to deal with the over-eager orchestra. It was shone out, as polished as his jackboots and stalked the whole theatre to within an inch of its life. That’s the trouble with charismatic fascists – they are uncomfortably attractive and Poulton’s Scarpia niggled away at us all for our being utterly fascinated by his every move.

It is difficult to pass judgement on this evening. It has been, over the years, a hugely successful production and one can instantly see why. Anthony Besch was confident and assured in what he was doing over thirty years ago and this one has certainly stood the test of time and bears up well to being revived under the direction of Jonathan Cocker. Vocally, there was without doubt some five star singing going on. However, if you can’t always hear the singing, those stars start to fall from sky faster than a diva dropping from the battlements.

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