Opera outdoors brings challenges, but English National Opera came close to solving most of them at the South Facing Festival in Crystal Palace Bowl. They have a fully covered stage, built over a small lake with a strip of water left between stage and the audience – some seated, most sitting on a grass mound bordered by bars and other refreshment facilities. The full-sized orchestra sits on the stage, with a narrow apron left for the singers to perform. The conductor faces the orchestra, so has his back to the singers, cued via a monitor. Either side of the stage are large video screens focussing on the singer performing or some critical piece of action, like the stealthy removal of a murder weapon, and two tall banks of loudspeakers. The singers are miked.

English National Opera performs in the Crystal Palace Bowl
© Lloyd Winters

There were no surtitles, nor any available programme or synopsis, so a real opera novice, of whom you expect a number at such events, might have been confused. But the opera – Puccini's Tosca – has a straightforward plot, and Donna Stirrup’s direction was clear and practical in the semi-staged circumstances. We had to guess at the number and length of any intervals. Using the screen for an announcement such as “First interval – 25 minutes” would have helped, but the screens were used for a loop displaying forthcoming ENO productions at the Coliseum, which had the comic effect at one point of musicians returning to their desks to the Ride of the Valkyries. Of course, the distinction between interval and performance gets blurred when you can see and hear the action while queueing at the bar, or collecting the pizzas to take back to your still seated companions witnessing Cavaradossi’s Act 2 suffering.

David Junghoon Kim (Cavaradossi) and Natalya Romaniw (Tosca)
© Lloyd Winters

All this was in the laudable spirit of the occasion – lower prices, less formality, greater inclusion. More worrying at several points was the sound system, which, perhaps in that same spirt, privileged impact over refinement – and later on seemed to draw the performers into the same trade-off. Doubtless this happens when you must project past the seated front rows to those on their picnic blankets further back. But this is not a vast space, and by Act 3 some of the tuttis might have been heard in Battersea, while a very loud Cavaradossi competed with an equally loud solo clarinet in his big number. Generally the balance was enjoyably bass-heavy; the four trombones and contrabassoon very telling whenever Puccini used them, Scarpia's motif thunderous on his Act 1 entry. In the case of the many bell sounds, it was evocative to hear them in the open air, liberated from the dry opera house to resonate under the night sky, every overtone audible. Chilliness apart, we were in nocturnal Rome.

Natalya Romaniw (Tosca)
© Lloyd Winters

Richard Farnes pulled no punches in his vivid direction of the score, and the ENO Orchestra responded with passion and verve, not just volume. His three leads would have served well in many a production. Only David Junghoon Kim’s highly promising Cavaradossi – he already has the voice for this heavy role – tired perhaps, sounding handicapped by wrapping Puccini’s vocal lines around an English text. Roland Wood’s stage presence and rich baritone made him a formidable Scarpia, dominating even the fine ENO Chorus in the Te Deum. Scarpia can exude more menace when oleaginous, scarier when suave than when snarling, and Wood had that balance just right. Natalya Romaniw, a diva to her fingertips, was an ideal Floria Tosca, fierily jealous and ferociously vengeful, not least when urging the slain Scarpia to get on with it and "Die!" Vocally and histrionically here was a Tosca to grace any opera house, let alone a walk in the park. Tosca shot herself (as she had Scarpia), but I wonder if the director considered that Tosca should follow the libretto and leap from the walls of the Castel Sant’Angelo into the stagnant lake below, our handy surrogate River Tiber. Surely all lovers of great singing would have rushed forward to pull her out.