The musicologist Joseph Kerman once dismissed Puccini’s Tosca as a “shabby little shocker”. Total rot, of course: but amidst the scenic splendour of some productions, it’s easy to forget that Tosca is actually one hell of a thriller. No risk of that in Blanche McIntryre’s production for English Touring Opera. Florence de Mare’s designs provide elegant early 19 century costumes, for sure, but a semi-abstract arrangement of platforms, steps and walkways set against a midnight-black backdrop serves unchanged as the Church of Sant’Andrea, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo.
The good news is that this throws the entire focus of the drama onto the cast – exactly where it should be. The production is touring with two different casts for the three leading parts, but I can’t imagine any Tosca and Cavaradossi making a more credibly besotted pair of young lovers than Paula Sides and Samuel Sakker did here. Sides’s singing, in particular, stood out: by turns laser-like in its tremulous intensity and hauntingly fragile and controlled in her final scenes with Cavaradossi. Her Vissi d’arte brought cheers from the Wolverhampton crowd.
Playing against them was Craig Smith as Baron Scarpia: a gaunt, pale figure with a malevolently beady stare, and harsh, cool singing (he almost barked as his temper frayed) to match. He reinforced the sense of this production as one that focussed on human drama rather than romantic cliché; though with Michael Rosewell, in the pit, drawing out all the colours of Puccini’s score, what this production lacked in sumptuousness it made up for in immediacy. Fast-paced, passionate and raw, this Tosca might not be exactly what you expect when you think of Puccini. But it certainly felt right.