Tosca - English National Opera, 18 May 2010 (first night)
I haven’t always been Ed Gardner’s biggest fan in the past, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not Puccini's either, but his breathtakingly superb conducting has got to be the main reason to catch this new Tosca. 'Revelatory' is a word that's often tossed lazily around, but here it's perfectly justified. This is a Tosca I could listen to over and over again.
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As always, he’s wake-the-dead loud, but there’s also an uncustomary subtlety as he traces the ebb and flow of the drama. The small moments are big and the big moments are simply enormous. He ran out of steam just a little in the final act, but that’s just quibbling really – I’ve never heard such a powerful, heart-piercing Tosca before. I surrendered about ten seconds in and was enraptured every second of the way.
The cast are pretty fantastic too. Though Amanda Echalaz has a voice of steel, in Catherine Malfitano’s production she’s anything but the traditional flouncing diva. Her Tosca is short-fused and quick to jealousy, but just as easily placated by a soft word. And despite the dutifully 18th century costumery, she’s also a modern, independent and intelligent woman, aware of the consequences of her actions whether she’s flirting with Cavaradossi or yielding with skin-crawling inevitability to Scarpia.
Julian Gavin is an equally thrilling Cavaradossi, with a heroic ring to his voice that plays up his political credentials as much as his artistic side. Malfitano directs their exchanges with the sure-footed attention to detail you’d expect from all her own experience in the role. Anthony Michaels-Moore carefully avoids panto-villain caricature in his coolly menacing Scarpia. The smaller parts were all taken at least adequately, which is not always the case at the Coliseum.
The musical side was so overpoweringly fabulous that I wouldn’t have cared much what I was looking at, but, for the record, it’s a very traditionally-set production, with a budget-conscious sparing of any remotely luxurious details. The final act looks superficially abstract until you realise that you’re simply looking at a side view of the Castel Sant’Angelo interior. A starry sky forms the backdrop, and the action takes place on the spiralling walls of the tower - yes, just like Lionel Ritchie’s Dancing on the Ceiling. Annoying lighting rather bizarrely spotlights the sets instead of the performers, and gets particularly irritating in the crepuscular Act 3. I’m not sure how well this production would stand up to a less talented set of performers, but for now, that’s not a problem.