Tosca, ENO, review: Puccini's melodramatic masterpiece soars in this bold reimagining

Forceful: Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca - Genevieve Girling
Forceful: Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca - Genevieve Girling

Puccini’s melodramatic thriller opens the English National Opera season in style. The story of the tragic singer Floria Tosca, her lover the painter Mario Cavaradossi and the police chief Scarpia who is besotted with her and murdered by her, has resounded through countless different stagings since its premiere in 1900, maintaining its intense popularity through waves of critical disapproval at its crudities.

ENO’s new version, though, is no cut-price radical rethink, but a tried and tested production by one of Europe’s currently top-notch opera directors. Christof Loy has worked at the Royal Opera on several occasions, but this is the first time he has come to ENO, with a staging that made its first appearance in Helsinki in 2018.

Loy’s concept is that the opera inhabits two worlds, that of an old regime represented by Scarpia and his gang of thugs, and the new revolutionary spirit captured by Cavaradossi. This is not quite coherent: Puccini’s fantastically effective music conjures up violence, verismo and intense sentiment in equal measure, rather than any radical critique of society.  But Loy’s approach enables some striking visual effects from designer Christian Schmidt, as the dour grey walls of the Scarpia’s apartment where he determines to seduce Tosca are gradually smothered by a rich red baroque curtain, while bewigged flunkies of purest white hover in the background, and mingle in the church setting of the first act where Tosca comes to visit her lover.

If the baroque costumes are meant to suggest faded relics, it doesn’t quite work, since they communicate a timeless innocence rather than a corrupt regime, and by the point where white-coated soldiers pull off Scarpia’s final trick, and execute Cavaradossi in the final act (in spite of having signed his freedom) the lines between the two worlds are blurred. Still, it’s a stimulating framework for what is all too often a simplistic tale of evil triumphing over love.

Some quirks in Loy’s reading seem designed to undercut Puccini’s precisely observed orchestral realism, which ironically is excellently captured by the energetic conductor Leo Hussain and the ENO orchestra. At the start of the third act the evocative sounds of the Roman countryside are lost in Cavaradossi’s tiny prison cell, and the shepherd boy is translated into a dream of Tosca herself who appears as a girl. Puccini’s sensational finale to act one, the liturgical setting of a Te Deum interwoven with the personal dramas unfolding around it, makes far too little impact as Scarpia falls to the floor in an agony of frustration.

Vicious power: Noel Bouley as Scarpia - Genevieve Girling
Vicious power: Noel Bouley as Scarpia - Genevieve Girling

What works here are some compelling characterisations by the principals. In spite of the fact that Noel Bouley as Scarpia was unwell, he acted silently with vicious power, while at the side of the stage Roland Wood sang incisively, the most commanding singing of the evening. Neither Adam Smith’s smoothly handsome Cavaradossi nor Sinéad Campbell-Wallace’s nervily intense Tosca may have the fully lyrical qualities needed for the roles, and Smith’s tenor has an edge to it which reduces the appeal of his act three aria.

But they are both fine actors, and Campbell-Wallace’s impetuous Tosca is powerful as she persuades Scarpia that she will submit to him, and then kills him. She sings her aria Vissi d’arte strongly as Scarpia literally tightens his grip on her. In the last act she is almost manic in her naïve belief that she and her lover will be free, and her final distraught leap of death is for once a convincing outcome.

The singers have to struggle with the un-Italianate vowel sounds of Edmund Tracey’s venerable English translation. In the mature age of surtitles, for an audience full of youthful faces and open ears, who whooped and cheered this show, it raised yet again the question of how necessary it is to perpetuate the myth that every ENO opera must be in English? This rewarding show has an immediacy of communication which would not be lost if the text was faithful to Puccini’s original.

ENO at the Coliseum (eno.org) until November 4