Against all the odds, Grange Park Opera have succeeded in building a 750 seat opera from the ground up in the space of just 11 months, in their new home in Surrey. Just the day after the opening of the Grange Festival at their former venue, opera lovers flocked to West Horsley to see Joseph Calleja make his role debut as Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca. The resulting evening proved hard to assess: a straightforward production in which everything was well executed except one thing – but that one thing is key to the whole opera.

Act I: Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi), Ekaterina Metlova (Tosca) © Robert Workman
Act I: Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi), Ekaterina Metlova (Tosca)
© Robert Workman

Director Peter Relton and designer Francis O’Connor opt for a traditional, photorealistic depiction of the three sites in Rome in which the action of the opera take place, with the period of the costumes moved from the Napoleonic Wars to the Italy of Mussolini (a nod to this, in the surtitles, moves the defeat at Marengo to “Ethiopia”). In Act I, Sant’Andrea della Valle is reproduced in painstaking detail, with almost as much effort going into Scarpia’s lair at the Palazzo Farnese in Act II. The approach makes it a long evening, however. What with speeches, a long dinner interval, a half-hour interval between Acts II and III to allow for the complex moving of scenery and the surprise of Jonathan Dimbleby appearing to announce the results of the General Election exit poll, we left the house not far short of five hours after the announced start time.

Jihoon Kim (Angelotti) © Robert Workman
Jihoon Kim (Angelotti)
© Robert Workman

I haven’t seen the BBC Concert Orchestra play opera before, and I was impressed: Gianluca Marcianò drew accurate, spirited playing, with good sense of pace, plenty of nicely turned woodwind phrases and fine Puccinian string sweep.

Calleja’s performance was so confident, so open, so natural that one could only wonder why he hasn’t tackled the role before. The sheer warmth of the voice and the easy swell of his phrasing couldn’t fail to seduce, and there was power to burn in the big dramatic highs. He sang a particularly fine part in the Act III duet “Amaro sol per te m'era morire”, when he tells Tosca that losing her was the only fear that death held for him. This November’s Tosca in Munich,  which Calleja sings with Anja Harteros and Željko Lučić, looks like an enticing prospect.

The singing of the other main roles may not have been up to Calleja’s star quality, but was never less than competent. Jihoon Kim impressed in his brief role as Angelotti; Roland Wood was in smooth and strong voice as Scarpia; Ekaterina Metlova has all the vocal strength needed for title role, a pleasant timbre without harshness or excessive vibrato, and a great deal of the required variation in phrasing.

Ekaterina Metlova (Tosca), Roland Wood (Scarpia) © Robert Workman
Ekaterina Metlova (Tosca), Roland Wood (Scarpia)
© Robert Workman

But here’s the problem: if it’s to be anything more than a string of half a dozen musical highlights, Tosca relies on the acting ability of its three protagonists – and most of all the title role – to make us believe in the violent passions that infuse them. And in this production, the acting was woefully stiff. Metlova’s principal body language was to stand bolt upright looking severe: I sensed no chemistry between her and Calleja in Act I, no fluidity or urgency of movement in Act II, and even in Act III, when she was supposedly cradled lovingly in Calleja’s arms, there was no sense of her relaxing back or abandoning herself to the moment. Had the passion in this production been visible as well as audible, it would have delivered so much more.

Act III: Ekaterina Metlova (Tosca), Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi) © Robert Workman
Act III: Ekaterina Metlova (Tosca), Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi)
© Robert Workman

A footnote: building the house in such a short time is a remarkable achievement by the Grange Park Opera architects and contractors, and one can only congratulate them on making it happen. But I have to question the architecture, which is in the traditional Italian platea-con-loggione style – a kind of stripped down, miniature La Scala. The acoustics are very good, but away from the stalls, there seem to be an awful lot of seats with poor sightlines. I suspect there will be work to do after this first season.