Opera Review: Tosca - King's Head Theatre


12/10/12: This was a peculiarly frustrating evening – Puccini’s “Tosca”, despite its grand scale setting and lush orchestrations, could, in the right hands, transfer quite happily to a chamber setting. The trio of protagonists subsume the comprimario parts and the work stands or falls on their performances. However this performance, despite some performances ranging from decent to excellent and a surprisingly successful reduction of Puccini’s thick textured orchestra to a mere three very hard working players, was hampered by wrongheaded adaptation and an often cack-handed production. 

The director (and adaptor), Adam Spreadbury Maher had decided for no good reason that I could ascertain to reset the opera in the GDR. This decision forced wholesale changes to Illica and Giacosa’s carefully constructed libretto – The rule of thumb appeared to be that if something couldn’t be forced to fit the new setting then it was changed. So out went The Church of Saint Andrea della Valle and in came a bulb factory. No, me neither! Angelotti hid in a cleaning supplies cupboard which was the province of the caretaker (Sacristan). And so on and so on. However the change of locale made for ludicrous dramatic holes – Why on earth would Cavaradossi be painting in a factory? Why would a glamorous diva visit him in such a dump? Why was Cavaradossi covered in paint? Surely a professional painter would be less careless?

Further unintentionally risible moments were occasioned by the fact that, presumably for reasons of economy, the parts of the Sacristan/Caretaker and Angelotti were played by the same singer. Now anyone who knows the score of Tosca at all well will realise that, although these characters never appear onstage at the same time, the number of bars between Angelotti’s exits and the Sacristan’s entrances is minimal. This is not merely because Puccini couldn’t be bothered to write more music here – The gap is deliberately conflated for reasons of excitement and tension. Poor Steven East, a strong singer and actor, had no time to substantially alter his appearance and was therefore instantly recognisable in both parts as the same singer. Those who had never seen the opera before must have been scratching their heads as to what on earth was going on. Steven also had to play Spoletta in Acts 2 and 3. Actually “Spoletta” turned out to be a combination of pretty much all the remaining supporting roles excepting the Act 3 Shepherd boy whose lovely solo was just cut. Given that Spoletta is normally a tenor part I’m surprised the enterprising Mr East didn’t have a go at the treble part as well…

Further indignities were inflicted on Francis Church’s Scarpia. Mr Church, under less trying circumstances could be an appreciable Baron but in this version he was required, at the climax of the Te Deum (which wasn’t a Te Deum as we weren’t in a church), to dry hump a picture of Erich Honeker. This, despite singing about his desire for Tosca for the previous five minutes.

Later he finally met his comeuppance on an office table which unfortunately irresistibly reminded this reviewer of the Art of Coarse Acting’s “Wrong way to die onstage”. Needless to say, after half an hour’s strenuous singing, Mr Church could not simply stop breathing and when Tosca covered his still heaving chest with her fur coat it appeared that the suddenly animated coat was making a bid for resurrection!

Sheridan Edward’s Cavaradossi has a pleasant middle voice which, at present, thins alarmingly at the top of the stave. He is a decent actor but it was his misfortune, being, like so many tenors, short and stout of stature, to be paired with the Amazonian proportioned Tosca of Demelza Stafford. This misfortune was further compounded by Miss Stafford’s six inch heels. Another production curiosity was that he appeared at the end of his torture session without a scratch on him and beaming from ear to ear.

Miss Stafford was the one true success of the evening – She gives her all vocally and dramatically and overcame the twin disadvantages of a misconceived production and some vilely unflattering frocks. I would love to see her in a more conventional production. Her voice is well produced and even throughout the range and she sang “Visse d’arte” better than several more famous exponents of my recent experience. However even she couldn’t bring off the botched version of Tosca’s suicide.

As already stated the band managed very well although their location often made for distracting viewing. I don’t know whose decision it was to play the first part of Puccini’s miraculous orchestral scene painting at the top of Act 3 with the houselights still on while the well-oiled audience continued to chatter and guffaw thus ruining one of Puccini’s finest moments. Whoever took the decision should seriously consider whether their future really lies in music theatre.

Singing 3 stars ✭✭✭
Production 1 star ✭

Review by Sebastian Petit

Tosca runs until 10th November