Royal Opera’s Tosca is a sloppy affair

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

One of the Royal Opera’s greatest virtues is the care it takes with its revivals, even those that are virtually annuals, such as Jonathan Kent’s Tosca, the unnecessary replacement for Zeffirelli’s classic production. Kent’s version, with elaborate sets by the much-missed Paul Brown, was unveiled in 2006 and now has its ninth revival. It is a sloppy affair — three stars thrown together on the stage and told to get on with it.

Since there is plenty of furniture around, and two precipitous flights of stairs, that isn’t as easy as it would be in any other UK production. When movements onstage are as haphazard as they were on the first night, one realises how physical a piece Tosca is, with entrances, exits, claspings of assorted kinds, all significant and crucial for sustaining tension. Andrew Sinclair, the revival director, seems to have been negligent. Act I was a connoisseur’s item of tedium, enhanced by the weird conducting of Dan Ettinger, who seemed obsessed with introducing punctuation into the music and drama, or waiting for applause, which was usually not forthcoming. In Tosca the characters are often, and with reason, afraid of sudden interruption, but here they were waiting for something to happen. I had always thought that Act II, in its ghastly way, is one of the unsinkables of opera, but though it didn’t drag as the first act had, it was no more than mildly exciting. The orchestra, which sometimes played marvellously and sometimes not, was at its best here, but the same can’t be said for the singers of Tosca and Cavaradossi.

Adrianne Pieczonka, an artist I have admired over the decades, was the strongest feature of Act I, acting and singing in perfect accord, but in Act II she seemed to have tired, and her account of ‘Vissi d’arte’ was embarrassingly tentative, deserving in the wrong way of Scarpia’s sardonic slow handclaps. Joseph Calleja’s Cavaradossi improved from act to act, but showed little passion in Act I and timid defiance in Act II. Gerald Finley was making his role debut in these inauspicious surroundings, and — great and intelligent artist as he is — made little impression in Act I, as if saving his voice. He has the potential to be a sinisterly attractive Scarpia, which would make a nice change, but here he didn’t really have the chance. If the ambition was — to adapt a too-much-quoted phrase — to produce a big, smart shocker, this revival has a long way to go but plenty of performances to get there.

Opera North’s production of Madama Butterfly by Tim Albery, first seen in 2007, stands up well, though it has some odd features, and in this revival seems, if memory serves me correctly, to have acquired a few new ones. All told, however, it provided the devastating experience that this opera should, and which it only can so long as one rations the number of performances one sees or listens to. Anna Picard, in a brilliant and penetrating article in the programme (and abridged online), shows how shallow the usual criticism of Puccini’s passion for suffering heroines is; Butterfly, in particular, is an active spirit, fighting for what she thinks is her destiny. Anne Sophie Duprels is experienced in the role, and though her entrance in Act I was disappointingly distant, she gained power as the evening went on and was stunning in the last half-hour. There is almost no finer exponent of this repertoire today than her.

Perhaps to keep things fresh, the version of the score was an unusual one, with several extra passages and redistributions of lines that I haven’t heard since 1979 in Wales. Here Butterfly interestingly tells Pinkerton, in the course of their Act I duet, that she originally felt repelled by the thought of ‘a foreigner, a barbarian’ making love to her, which adds to her character. But most of the startling alterations are towards the end, where Kate Pinkerton takes over some of the lines Butterfly normally sings — this Kate looked exactly like Betty, Don Draper’s first wife — and Pinkerton is deprived of his brief aria of useless repentance.

The supporting cast — I include Pinkerton, boyishly portrayed by the Lithuanian Merunas Vitulskis, among them — are all adequate or more. Martin Pickard conducted as if he wished it were a mature Wagner opera — vast orchestral climaxes, shattering percussion, portentous silences, as if providing a massive frame for the painful but small-scale action onstage. Most of the time it worked, sometimes it seemed mannered. A pity about the imposed ending, which has Goro strolling over to take a bored look at Butterfly’s corpse — at least the others are upset.

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