Music: Tosca, ENO

The plot is big and stupid, the gender politics are dubious, and the male hero’s pretty dull, but, by God, all this cannot stop me from loving Tosca

-Kathryn Bromwich

 In typical Italian style, the story is about love, lust, jealousy, politics, torture, corruption, extortion – it’s all there. The posters for this production at the English National Opera feature a stunning, dark-haired Monica Bellucci lookalike posing sexily with a knife. This fills me with joy. It perfectly captures the spirit of the opera: sexed-up melodrama, with lots of sex and violence, and then some more sex. There is no room for subtlety here. If you’re looking for proof that opera is neither highbrow nor pretentious, look no further. With its passionate and unrestrained plot, it’s like a dark, ripe, over-sexed Disney cartoon cranked up to eleven.

The story starts in a church, where Tosca’s lover Mario Cavaradossi is painting a picture of Mary Magdalen. He runs into his old friend Angelotti, former Consul of the Roman Republic and now a political prisoner, who has escaped from jail and is hiding in the church. Cavaradossi offers to help him, portentously adding “whatever it may cost me”. Angelotti hidden, Tosca arrives, and the happy couple croons sappily together for a while. And then the tone changes: police chief Scarpia marches in looking for the fugitive, starts to suspect Cavaradossi, and sows seeds of jealousy into Tosca’s already-anxious mind. The two increasingly turbulent acts that follow contain blackmail, attempted rape, murder, betrayal and suicide. Set in June 1800, in the background there is Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, sporadically emerging as ‘Cavaradossi = virtuous and heroic dissenter’, ‘Scarpia = corrupt embodiment of the State’.

Cavaradossi, bless him, is a good, moral, manly, and slightly boring character. He does, however, get to sing some brilliant pieces of music. The first aria about different kinds of beauty, ‘Recondita Armonia’, is schmaltzy but wonderful. In the Second Act, after being tortured and sentenced to death, he breaks into a triumphant ejaculation of ‘Victorious, Victorious’ upon hearing of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo. Finally, he sings the climax of the third act. ‘E Lucevan le Stelle’ is just about as populist as opera goes, but its mournful, languid notes as Cavaradossi says goodbye to life are heartbreakingly beautiful. Gwyn Hughes Jones’s vocals rise up to the challenge, tugging at heartstrings in all the right ways.

Nevertheless, there is an outstanding lack of chemistry between Cavaradossi and Tosca. In Act One, when he is saccharinely singing to her about how much he loves her, he incongruously sits on the other side of the stage, looking away from her and rolling his eyes at everything she says.

In a way, it is difficult to blame him. She is an exasperating character: spectacularly jealous, capricious, weak, and a tiny bit irrational. Claire Rutter, believed to be the only English soprano with the vocal ability to do Floria Tosca in all her histrionic, warbling glory, is magnificent in the role. She flits around like a teenager in love, coquettishly seductive (yet pious), and her explosions of jealous anger are suitably over-the-top. The production is directed by American soprano Catherine Malfitano, whose extensive experience of playing Tosca herself has given her a perfect understanding of the character’s diva-esque mannerisms and attitude.

However, the real star of the opera is Scarpia. His entrance is stupendous: dark and majestic, he storms into the church flanked by his guards, dispersing a group of noisy choirboys and angrily confronting the Sacristan. The entire tone changes, taking a turn for the darker. In the last scene of Act One, Scarpia sets out his evil plan and, still in church, explodes “Tosca, you make me forget God” (underwhelmingly translated here as “Tosca, you turn my thoughts away from God”) over the incendiary orchestra and choir, who are blasting out ‘Te Deum’ as loud and fervently as it will go. Scarpia is occasionally reminiscent of what Berlusconi might behave like in a similar situation, breezily trilling amazing lines such as “violent conquest is more sweetly flavoured than mellifluous consent” or “I have no wish to coo like a turtle dove”.

Judging from pictures I’ve seen of the Royal Opera House production earlier this year (sadly rather beyond my budget), Bryn Terfel’s Scarpia was portrayed as a rat-like, red-nosed mess of a human being with excess facial hair. This is a shame – Scarpia works best when he starts off with the semblance of dignity and power. Without charisma, Scarpia is just a rapey old lech, but with it, he is a sadistic yet compelling über-villain. Anthony Michaels-Moore as Scarpia cuts a fine figure: tall, slim, wearing some fetching riding boots and a dramatic cape. Sometimes his deep voice is drowned out at crucial moments by the unusually loud orchestra, conducted by Stephen Lord with an intensity befitting to the plot, but on the whole he is suitably terrifying.

Before I went in, the only thing that tempered my excitement was that the opera would be in English. Being half Italian, I am used to the original version, which, embarrassingly, I know every word to. Fortunately, translator Edmund Tracey pulls it off for around 70% of the time. Musically, it’s incredibly faithful, leaving the melody virtually unaffected. The necessary damage is taken by the dialogue: it is clunky and dated, but charmingly so. The occasional clanger – notably “you’re so jealous” – provokes occasional giggles in the audience. Some stunning lines lose some small but essential nuance, for example Cavaradossi’s “I have never had so much to live for” (instead of “I have never loved life so much”). But hats off – ultimately, it’s the music that matters here.

After assisting last year’s wonderfully irreverent Don Giovanni, followed by a disappointing Faust directed by Terry Gilliam (“as if someone had written it with a sledgehammer instead of a pen”), I was excited yet wary of this ENO production of my favourite opera. Having grown up with the 1985 Zeffirelli production, featuring Behrens/Domingo/MacNeil at the Metropolitan Opera, my standards were quite high. There were a couple of things I would have done differently in the ENO show: the futuristic set design in the Third Act might not be to everyone’s liking, the shepherd boy’s song was lacklustre, and the love between Tosca and Cavaradossi could have been depicted better. But overall, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s loud and exciting, and Scarpia is fantastic — so it’s a thumbs-up from me.

Recently, Black Swan achieved a level of melodramatic hysteria similar to this, which drew some humourless critics to whinge about its lack of subtlety. They have clearly missed the point: these are not Ibsen plays, wittily observing the realities of everyday life in a realistic fashion. They are loud, overindulgent excesses of emotion. Admittedly, if done badly this is a terrible combination – Les Misérables and every other West End musical – but here, with its tongue nudging its cheek, it works gloriously. The giggling audience understood.

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