Music: Giacomo Puccini
Text: Luigi Illica & Guiseppe Giacosta
Director: Blanche McIntyre
Reviewer: Charlotte Robson
Puccini’s Tosca is one of the few texts whose imagery and symbolism transcend the relatively insular medium of opera. A tale of love, death, jealousy and regret set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, the surprisingly simple story is defined by the power of the emotions at its heart. This truth, the English Touring Opera have taken to heart, and from it made a production every bit as spirited as its protagonist.
Tosca herself, despite being the eponymous heroine of the tale, is something of a quandary; though hers is the central and therefore most frequent presence on stage, she herself is not a tremendously sympathetic or dynamic character. She is shrill, jealous, demanding and foolish by turns – and yet Paula Sides, after a slightly wobbly start in Act One, brings to the fore such expressive movement and presence that the audience cannot help but empathise with her plight.
Some of the production’s best moments take place between Sides’ Tosca and the deliciously evil Andrew Slater as Scarpia – whose talent for combined malice and melodrama make him both compelling and repugnant. The scene of Scarpia’s attempted seduction and Tosca’s murderous reply is beautifully tense, and displays the best of both actors’ capabilities. Sides is a stunning vocal talent, combining her impressive acting ability with a vocal range and clarity that elevate her iconic arias to almost Shakespearean levels of character-defining excellence.
There is additional excellence on a variety of other fronts, too. The rest of the cast are a beautifully balanced range of voices – including some very talented young choristers from Exeter School – and Jordan Goff’s sound management makes the most of a limited but effective range of sound effects to support the omnipresent orchestra. The use of the cannon, in particular, displays the best of both sound team and instrumentalists’ work. Florence de Mare deserves particular credit for the design of the set, too; simple, small, but deceptively dynamic and very aesthetically pleasing to the eye of the audience looking into it from outside.
If there is any criticism one may make of ETO’s Tosca, it is one of faithfulness. The decision to keep to the original Italian necessitates that any non-Italian speakers must constantly be removing their gaze from the stage to read the translation which, while ably done, is rather literal and lacking in poetry, occasionally misses its cues, and inevitably breaks audience immersion. However, one cannot fault the desire to keep a work born of a particular historical moment in its time.
The story of Tosca is a story of emotion as much as it is a story of people. The ETO do not neglect either, and while occasionally constrained by the limits of language and character, this production is a near-perfect display of talent, passion, and technical brilliance that deserves a hearty recommendation.
Runs until 27 May 2017 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith