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Tosca

Music by Giacomo Puccini, with libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
A Raymond Gubbay production
Royal Albert Hall
(2008)

Production photo

Tosca was originally a drama written by Victorien Sardou, the most prolific of the French nineteenth century dramatists and a master of the now much-derided well-made play.

Sardou offered political and sexual intrigue, jealousy, betrayal, treachery, police interrogation, torture (off-stage), seduction, murder, a mock military execution (which turns out to be real) and a suicide in which the heroine leaps to her death from the battlements.

Sarah Bernhardt, who scored one of her greatest triumphs in the title role, was said to have generated enough electricity to light up the streets of London. Clement Scott, the Daily Telegraph critic, described her performance as the nearest thing to great tragedy that he had ever seen.

Today, Tosca remains a star vehicle; but only in Puccini’s opera.

Director David Freeman’s production, conducted by Peter Robinson, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and designed by David Roger, doesn’t work as well in the round as his spectacular production of Madam Butterfly and Francesca Zambello’s spectacular production of La Bohème do.

The first act takes place in a Church - ideal for the Albert Hall you would think – except that that the painter and revolutionary sympathizer Cavardossi looks rather silly up a ladder painting badly in the middle of an empty space.

The end of the first act is one of the most thrilling climaxes in all opera. At the very moment that the choir and churchgoers are singing the Te Deum, so is Scarpia, the Head of Police, vowing to hang Cavardossi and seduce Cavardosssi’s lover, the celebrated diva, Tosca. The brilliant counterpointing of the religious and the murderous and lecherous is spine-tingling.

But what is the point of singing in English if the audience cannot hear what the singers are saying? Better to sing in Italian and have surtitles. If you don’t know the opera you are strongly advised to arrive early and read the synopsis in the programme,

The second act is set in Scarpia’s apartment. Freeman solves the problem by not only having an exceptionally long table with a blazing red tablecloth, but also by having the torture chamber, which is normally off-stage, on stage.

The confrontation between Tosca (Cynthia Lawrence) and Scarpia (Peter Sidhom), which includes attempted rape and ends in murder, is a reminder of just how good melodrama can be. The singing carries a terrific punch.

The third act is set in a courtyard of a prison in which nothing much happens for a long time, except for the guard changing. A huge statue of the angel of Saint Michael stands high above the orchestra.

Tosca’s suicide by jumping off the battlements is made spectacular by the fact that she jumps towards the audience. And it is Cynthia Lawrence actually jumping!

There have been bulky Toscas in the past who have jumped off the battlements on to the mattresses below only to their horror to find themselves bouncing up again and re-appearing over the battlements.

Scarpia is one of the great villains. In the curtain-call the audience behaved as if they were a 19th century audience watching an old-fashioned cheap melodrama and booed him. Peter Sidhom accepted the booing good-humouredly with a gesture which suggested: “Who me? A villain? Surely, not?” The real Scarpia would, of course, have had all exits immediately sealed and his Secret Police would have arrested everybody.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch