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Admirably Convincing

English Touring Opera's 'Tosca',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


For a small scale touring company, touring three operas to 27 places in just under three months, illness must be something of a problem. English Touring Opera travels with each major role being covered by a member of the 16 strong chorus. But even so, problems can occur. On Saturday 25 March 2006 at the Cambridge Arts Theatre (the 2nd stop on their tour), the performance of Tosca suffered a triple hit. Julie Unwin, due to play the title role, was ill and replaced by her cover, Constance Novis. Craig Smith, due to play Baron Scarpia, was ill, as was his cover. So Smith acted the role whilst Charles Johnson (who sang Talbot in ETO's 2005 production of Maria Stuarda) sang from the side of the stage. It was assistant conductor Robin Newton's first night conducting the opera; he is sharing the conducting honours with Noel Davies. It is a tribute to the ETO ensemble and backstage crew that the performance went off without a hitch and proved a gripping musical drama.

Tim Carroll's production used traditional, period costumes and was naturalistic with a good eye for detail. Making a virtue of necessity, Carroll used his cast to fill the small acting area with vivid characters as he could not rely on traditional gorgeous sets because there weren't any. Designer Michael Vale had provided a usefully flexible two-level acting area. This single set had to double as the church interior for Act 1, Scarpia's study in Act 2 and the castle in Act 3. Structurally it did this well and Carroll used the set with ingenuity. In Act 1 Cavaradossi (Sean Ruane) painted on the upper level and Ruane successfully convinced us that there was a real painting between him and the audience. Scarpia made his first entrance from this level, which greatly clarified the blocking during what can be a complex piece of business. And for the Act 1 finale, Scarpia sang from the lower level and the chorus sang from above; Carroll made no attempt to give us a procession, he relied on lighting and Smith's expressive movements to give interest to the proceedings.

Naturally, the upper level of the stage made the ramparts from which Tosca threw herself, though Carroll rather failed at the very last minute; he had to freeze the action in order to give Tosca time to finish singing before throwing herself off -- the only real failure in what otherwise was a strong exposition of the plot. The main problem was that this wonderfully flexible set was truly ugly. Simple board painted shiny black/grey, unrelieved by any colour or detail. It required a real effort of imagination to imagine you were in the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle.

Carroll's production opened as he meant to go on with Richard Mosley-Evans's vividly portrayed Sacristan using two buckets to clean Cavaradossi's brushes. Later on Mosley-Evans cast longing glances at the unused bottle of wine in Cavaradossi's basket of provisions. Mosley-Evans was amusing in the role without ever milking it; something to which many singers are prone.

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Copyright © 28 March 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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