OperaUpClose has made a brand of eschewing chamber opera suitable for its resources and, instead, taking on grand opera and reducing it… with mixed results. The ambition, of course, should be applauded – sustaining a fringe opera company for five years without external funding is no mean feat. But while its updating of the classics is always inventive, with an opera like ‘Tosca’, so glorious in the original, much gets lost in the translation.
For example, at the end of Act 1, in the aria ‘Va, Tosca!’, Puccini’s score calls for a chorus singing the ‘Te Deum’, complete with rousing orchestra and tolling bells (and, as it is set in a church, incense is often thrown in). Over this, evil chief of police Scarpia sings in his menacing baritone: ‘Tosca, you make me forget God’, which, in the context of 1800 Italy, is a powerful and intoxicating combination. Move proceedings to a lightbulb factory in East Germany in 1989 and get rid of the chorus and orchestra, a solo Scarpia tossing aside a picture of GDR leader Erich Honecker doesn’t quite compare. Especially, when musically, the orchestra has been replaced by a trio of piano, cello and clarinet – which could make this work, but not when Danyal Dhondy’s reduced orchestration is played merely competently and without flair.
Still, there is much to enjoy. Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, who brings his intimate, English-language production of this shabby little shocker from Islington’s King’s Head Theatre to the West End, has created a consistent theme, albeit one in which all grandiosity has been stripped away and proceedings take place under the harsh strip-lighting of a factory and a Stasi office. A plastic clock on the wall tells us it is October 16 1989, the portraits on the wall are of Lenin and Honecker. We know that the Stasi are on borrowed time and the communist updating allows for some bold amendments, such as the Sacristan (here, a feckless factory caretaker) singing ‘The Red Flag’ rather than ‘The Angelus’, and Cavaradossi’s painting of the Madonna now a revolutionary worker.
The (double) cast bring a youthful and ardent feel to the show. Tenor Gareth Dafydd Morris makes a good fist of the revolutionary Cavaradossi, though he is rather pinched at the top of his range; his lover, Floria Tosca, is sung solidly by Demelza Stafford, though her characterisation of the doomed opera diva is more overtly robust than imperiously knowing. The most engaging performance comes courtesy of baritone Francis Church, whose stony-faced Scarpia is all the more menacing for being just a nasty little bureaucrat. And not forgetting an amusing turn from solid bass-baritone Steven East as the spineless caretaker; and Tom Stoddart, who sings both Angelotti and the menacing Stasi thug Spoletta – for which he takes being stony-faced to another level. Jonathan Lennie
‘Tosca’ runs at Soho Theatre until Sep 15 2013.