Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Ellen Kent
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
With this enjoyable production of Tosca, producer and director Ellen Kent celebrates 20 years of bringing opera and ballet to ”the masses,” collaborating with singers and musicians from Chisinau National Opera and Philharmonic, of Moldova, for a traditionally-minded take on Puccini that’s touring with a revival of Carmen. Kent’s grand, glitzy brand of populist opera may not win the approbation of the cognoscenti but there’s no denying its appeal, as demonstrated by the enthusiastic crowd that turned out for Tosca last night at Richmond Theatre, where both of the productions conclude their three month tour with a pair of performances each.
Lavishness has always been the key word for Kent’s productions and her Tosca doesn’t disappoint on this score. The director’s appetite for excess rather gets the better of her in the wildly over-opulent design for Scarpia’s grand palace (which comes complete with fruity Sapphic handmaidens). But the church set for Act One is less ostentatiously impressive, with beautiful religious portraits, massive pillars and a glimpse of Saint Peter’s through epic bronze doors. Elsewhere, the production throws a barrage of Victorian theatre tricks into the mix, with a cutesy children’s choir, a firing squad that turns its guns on the audience and a couple of (much-hyped and rather underwhelming) cameos for a golden eagle “with a seven foot wingspan” (as the publicity material oddly boasts).
Such unashamed swerves into kitsch aren’t, of course, to all tastes. But, some awkward moments notwithstanding, they certainly keep the evening lively and ensure that even opera sceptics should find enough to engage them here. For what the production lacks in subtlety and nuance it makes up for, at its best, in sheer melodramatic brio. Conductor Nicolae Dohotaru and the expert orchestra play with great gusto, and the vibrancy of Puccini’s richly expressive melodies carries the day.
As do some fine performances. Eugen Ganea is rather underpowered as Angelotti, and Anatol Arcea hams as the henchman Spoletta. But Iurie Maimescu is endearing as the Sacristan and the robust Vladimir Dragos deftly avoids pantomime villainy to give a commanding (yet not OTT) account of Scarpia, conveying the character’s manipulative machinations with aplomb, especially in the ultimatum scene. As the doomed lover Cavaradossi, Sorin Lupu’s resonant, ringing tones are highly appealing, and his delivery of Act One’s demanding “Recondita Armonia” grips the audience, as does a beautiful Act Three “E lucevan le Stelle” which Lupu performs with heartrending desperation.
And Maria Tonina sings a powerful and engaging Tosca, conveying both the heroine’s vulnerability and her strength. Tonina begins by presenting Tosca as a rather silly woman, and she’s very funny when highlighting her jealousy and insecurity. Some repetitious gestures mean that the performance doesn’t quite hit the heights of tragic grandeur but her take on the rôle does deepen, with her moving, earnestly impassioned delivery of Act Two’s immortal “Vissi D’arte” becoming the undisputed emotional centrepiece of the evening.