When Spoletta is the best thing about a new production of Tosca, you're in trouble. There was a brooding malevolence about Aled Hall's police agent that was missing from the portrayal of his boss, the villainous Baron Scarpia. Hall's diction had real bite and his glowering at Cavaradossi, painter and republican sympathiser, betrayed contempt. At the opera's climax, when Tosca climbs the ladder to hurl herself from the Castel Sant'Angelo, Spoletta follows her, turning to launch a furious snarl at the audience as the curtain falls. If only we'd seen such passion elsewhere.

Aled Hall (Spoletta) and Craig Smith (Scarpia) © Richard Hubert Smith
Aled Hall (Spoletta) and Craig Smith (Scarpia)
© Richard Hubert Smith

There are many things wrong with English Touring Opera's show. Whoever approved Florence de Maré's set design deserves to replace Cavaradossi in front of the firing squad. A slanting ramp of a walkway juts through a short flight of stairs which meant most of the cast spent their time nervously negotiating a trip hazard. A single set and minimal stage furnishings are understandable for a production which has to fit into twenty theatres on tour but this was minimalist in the extreme. A black backdrop meant no sunlight-filled church, no Roman dawn. Only the basic elements of the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle survive: the statue of the Madonna, a trapdoor leading down to the Attavanti Chapel and an easel, turned the wrong way so the audience cannot see Cavaradossi's portrait. In Act 2, the Attavanti Chapel trapdoor doubles rather more convincingly as Scarpia's torture chamber. In Act 3 a narrow tower, in which recalcitrant doors and window shutters had refused to close in earlier acts, became the means for Tosca's leap.

Craig Smith (Scarpia) and Paul Sides (Tosca) © Richard Hubert Smith
Craig Smith (Scarpia) and Paul Sides (Tosca)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Blanche McIntyre's direction is clumsy. “Someone in there!” exclaims Cavaradossi, pointing to the Attavanti Chapel, by which point Angelotti had already clambered out. The choristers are so well behaved, they hardly deserve Scarpia's admonishment for showing disrespect in a church. Then, when Tosca signals her arrival by calling her lover's name, Scarpia murmurs “Tosca? She must not see me”... but there's nowhere for him to possibly hide. When Cavaradossi is brought into the Palazzo Farnese for questioning, he refuses to sit, but within a few moments here, he's drawn up a chair and is taking the weight off his feet.

Craig Smith (Scarpia) and Paula Sides (Tosca) © Richard Hubert Smith
Craig Smith (Scarpia) and Paula Sides (Tosca)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Michael Rosewell drew ripe playing from a reduced orchestra that nonetheless overwhelmed some of the voices. Puccini occasionally seemed a size too big for Paula Sides, a soprano of Handelian pedigree, and there was little sense of the grand diva about her prima donna. However, she delivered a moving “Vissi d'arte”, when placed downstage in the spotlight, safe from the treacherous steps. Alexander James Edwards has an Italianate tone and aims at an heroic sound as Cavaradossi, but sounded strained on opening night, his best moment coming in “E lucevan le stelle”. Craig Smith barked his way through the role of Scarpia, his grey, hollow baritone lacking menace. A firm-voiced Matthew Stiff was a likeable Sacristan.

ETO is treasurable in taking opera to places where it isn't always easily available, but introducing new audiences to a classic such as Tosca via this production does Puccini a disservice.