I haven’t yet had a chance to read Piers Paul Read’s Scarpia, which seeks to present a different version of Puccini’s base, power-hungry police chief, but I struggle to imagine a warm, good natured side of Scarpia and I doubt the composer wanted us to either. English National Opera’s revival of Catherine Malfitano’s 2010 production of Tosca  is firmly in the traditional camp on this; nor does it drastically break away into updated and conceptual theatre.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Cavaradossi) © Richard Hubert Smith
Gwyn Hughes Jones (Cavaradossi)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Malfitano keeps the action in the original setting, with period costumes. Frank Philipp Schlössman’s lavishly decorated Sant'Andrea della Valle in Act I is a delight with the huge unfinished fresco stage right, thick pillars that wobbled only slightly alarmingly when leant upon and a stunning backdrop showing the rest of the church. Act II relocates us to Scarpia’s well-furnished quarters in Palazzo Farnese; a grotty door in the wall leads to the torture room and there’s a substantial table for writing, eating and unwanted advances. Lighting here was nicely, albeit a little obviously, handled, the room darkening with tension, the spotlight on Tosca for her central aria “Love and music”. Act III is where things get slightly odd and we relocate to what looks like a viewing deck on the Death Star, completely incongruous after the detail of the previous acts. Revival director Donna Stirrup would have benefited from time for one or two more rehearsals just to iron out a sense of clunkiness; a revival does not automatically guarantee that the various elements will react as positively as in the previous runs.

The best Toscas rely upon an absolutely secure trio of singers; they have to stand out as individuals while providing a compelling vocal and dramatic picture as a trio. This production was far from secure in that respect. Gwyn Hughes Jones gave the standout performance as Cavaradossi, resplendent in sweeping trench coat. Working from a fundamentally attractive middle voice, he gave a superb “Recondita armonia”, thick and luscious with a lovely line and ringing, secure high notes. Dramatically he was convincing; a twinkle in his eye in the first act, bloodily angry in the second act and resigned in the third. Diction was sharp and not once was I forced to rely on surtitles when he was singing. A generous performance.

Act I <i>Te Deum</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Act I Te Deum
© Richard Hubert Smith

Keri Alkema, the newest American soprano to grace the Coliseum’s boards, isn’t there yet with her Tosca. Dramatically she was strongest in the Act II, but the first had moments that were wooden and it seemed difficult to pin down in which direction she was taking the character – which, in fairness, some might consider a virtue. Vocally, she again took a little time to warm up with some underpowered singing in the first chunk of Act I and a little insecurity showing at the top of the voice. Still, she knocked out some terrific highs and was particularly thrilling in the great confrontation with Scarpia, while Cavaradossi was being tortured, and there was some fine moments of sensitive singing, most notably in her “Vissi d'arte”. The big disappointment though, was her diction where, without surtitles, keeping up with her would have been a substantial issue.

Keri Alkema (Tosca) and Craig Colclough (Scarpia) © Richard Hubert Smith
Keri Alkema (Tosca) and Craig Colclough (Scarpia)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Craig Colclough will divide opinion as Scarpia; certainly there’s no prospect of picturing him as once being a decent egg. Colclough’s Scarpia is well into pantomime territory here – if he had a moustache, it would have been vigorously twirled – and a lot of the time, it seemed rather silly. Evil looks, raised eyebrows, blatant smirks – elements of it felt like Tito Gobbi, but not as convincing. On one level I enjoyed it, but his interpretation – bearing in mind this was Colclough’s first time in the role – could do with more nuance. He made up for it somewhat in the lead up to his murder, where his pawing and lunging at Tosca was realistically chilling enough to be disturbing. Vocally there was a braying in the higher register which I hope was part of his assumption of the character, and not a natural defect, but he generally gave a sturdy performance. Diction, again, was slightly flaky in some places, though in others had malevolent clarity.

The minor roles of Spoletta, the Sacristan and Angelotti were all decently sung by Scott Davies, Adrian Powter and Andri Björn Róbertsson, the latter particularly convincing as the prisoner on the run. Oleg Caetani drew a vivid sound in the pit; a guttural opening led into a generally classy playing of fine verismo pedigree. 

***11