Review: Tosca, Grand Opera House

Tosca – another spectacular operatic production from Ellen Kent
6 Mar 2016 @ 9.46 pm
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I must admit, up front, that Tosca is my favourite opera, so this tends to make me more critical, not less, of every new production that I see. Happily, there was nothing about this version that I didn’t love.

Director Ellen Kent has a well-deserved reputation for spectacular operatic productions, and she really has excelled herself here.

Set in Rome in 1800, Tosca has a typical operatic storyline – boy meets girl, boy hides escaped prisoner, boy gets arrested and tortured, girl is propositioned by chief of police and murders him, boy and girl die at dawn.

Ellen Kent’s Tosca

Grand Opera House, York

Fri Mar 4, 2016

Grand Opera House website

Opera itself is a faintly ludicrous medium, demanding that women dying of TB sing arias at the tops of their voices, and that men disguise themselves, so thoroughly that no one recognises them, by the simple expedient of putting on a hat.

But a good production can make you believe – and this is a very good production.

Love triangle

‘Absolutely convincing performances’
‘Absolutely convincing performances’

Tosca the opera lives or dies on the performances of the three central characters – Mario Cavaradossi, a painter; the villainous Baron Scarpia, chief of police; and the woman they both desire, the beautiful diva, Floria Tosca.

The plot is something of a love triangle – although Scarpia wants Tosca purely as a trophy, to be bedded and discarded, while Cavaradossi and Tosca are deeply in love.

The chemistry between Alyona Kistenyova (Tosca) and Ruslan Zinevych (Cavaradossi) is absolutely convincing. I’m sure this is helped by the fact that they are married in real life – although both prove themselves throughout to be talented actors, something that is perhaps not as common as it should be in opera.

Kistenyova, especially, really develops her character across the three acts. In Act One, she is coquettish, a little vain, and somewhat jealous.

In Act Two, we see the depth of her love for Cavaradossi, and feel her confusion and terror at the choice of seeing him tortured and executed, or allowing Scarpia to have sex with her to secure his release.

In Act Three, she moves seamlessly from hope and elation, believing that the execution will be faked, and that she and Cavaradossi will escape and live happily ever after, to her anguish at discovering that her lover has really been killed, and her suicide by throwing herself from the castle ramparts.

Carnality and murder

I really must mention her beautiful costumes, too. Her voluminous peach satin and lace dress in Act One is surpassed only by her scarlet satin and lace dress, with accompanying scarlet damask coat, in Acts Two and Three. I have no idea what her jewellery is made from, but I have never seen stage jewellery sparkle so much.

Zinevych’s Cavaradossi is the perfect operatic hero – indulgent of Tosca’s whims, unhesitating in allowing the escaped prisoner Cesare Angelotti (Roman Balko) to hide in his own villa, brave under torture. His performance of my very favourite aria, E lucevan le stelle in Act Three, was perfection.

Vladimir Dragos (the elderly Scarpia) genuinely makes you shudder. He looks every inch the classic villain, from his thigh-high leather boots to the sneer on his ugly face.

I was amazed to see his photograph in the programme, and to discover how much more handsome and young he is in real life!

His study, the setting for Act Two, underlines his carnality and lack of moral code. The curtain rises on him at dinner, with two scantily-clad young girls attentively fondling him, while another pair are more interested in each other.

He plays with Tosca’s emotions quite deliberately and coldly, before attempting to assault her, not once, but twice. When Tosca stabs him, you almost feel like cheering.

I must also mention here Scarpia’s sidekick, Spoletta (Ruslan Pacatovici), who throws himself into the role of henchman with such gusto that I almost expected him to giggle asthmatically, like Dick Dastardly’s dog, Muttley.

Rapturous response

The talented cast on the ‘superbly solid-looking set’
The talented cast on the ‘superbly solid-looking set’

One superbly solid-looking set is used for all four locations – the interior of the church of Sant’Andrea della Villa, Scarpia’s study in the Palazzo Farnese, Cavaradossi’s cell, and the ramparts of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

A massive central door is flanked by walls with niches containing statues, and opens to reveal a view of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Simple changes are made for each act – covering niches with barred windows, for Cavaradossi’s cell, for example.

The young performers, supplied by York Stagecoach, fulfil their roles impeccably. Lighting and sound are extremely good, and the orchestra (the Orchestra of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Moldova, and National Philharmonic of Moldova), conducted by Vasyl Vasylenko, perform with delicacy as well as strength.

The opera is sung in Italian, with English surtitles on a screen above the stage. If you have ever been put off going to an opera by thinking you won’t understand anything, do consider a production with surtitles – it improves the experience immensely.

Accessibility: As always, the front of house staff were very friendly and helpful with my wheelchair. Level access is part way down King Street, but the box office staff need to be alerted when you arrive, so that they can unlock the door. The accessible toilet next to this door is not overly generous in size, but is well-equipped and very clean. There is always an usher nearby if you need help. The pavement on King Street has now been improved, which makes the journey to and from the level access door a little less bumpy and problematic. If you have a Blue Badge, however, I would recommend parking on King Street itself – although you may find that you are sharing the double yellow lines with non-badge holders…

A packed house gave the cast a rapturous response, including a prolonged curtain call. I only wish this performance could have visited York for more than one night, so that more people could have enjoyed it. It really was a night to remember.