24 SEPTEMBER 1994, Page 50


Tosca (London Coliseum)

Tragic loss of direction

Rupert Christiansen

Some people go crazy for Tosca, but I just find her infuriating. Can't stand the woman. Totally self-centred, quiveringly vain, foully bad-tempered, insanely ambi- tious - you know the type. Tell her she was wonderful and she'll reply 'well, don't look so surprised'; compliment her on the frock, and she'll ask you what was wrong with one she was wearing yesterday. In other words, precisely the sort of nightmare person I don't want in my life.

This, judging from the surviving evi- dence, is what Maria Callas so profoundly understood about the character. In the dim grey film shot for ATV of Act 2 of her cele- brated 1964 Tosca at Covent Garden (and recently re-released on a vital EMI video, Maria Callas at Covent Garden PM 807), she is magnificently intolerable, a diva who can't really accept a world in which things don't go her way, but also a vicious peasant who knows how to barter - `Quanto? Il prez- zo!' - and what to do with a knife. Every- thing else about her is a matter of instinct and appetite. I imagine the sex she might have had with Tito Gobbi's daemonically attractive Scarpia would have been clawing, desperate, greedy and sensational. Instead she killed him.

Callas doesn't so much sing as declaim: like Gobbi, she is versed in the lost of art of operatic shouting, with its rich Mediter- ranean palette of rasping, growling, snort- ing and screaming. Both of them are, in every sense, loud (Joan Sutherland's hus- band Richard Bonynge once told me that the young Callas' bel canto came across even louder than Flagstad's Wagner), writ- ing large their every flicker of emotion. They don't make them like that any more. Theatrical genius is at work, but also an immense craft: the amount of rehearsal that went into this performance was beyond anything an opera house affords nowadays.

I suppose it's a bit of a cliché to compare latter-day productions of Tosca to this fabled benchmark, but confronted with the English National Opera's new effort, I don't know what else to say. Except that last Saturday it seemed a pretty poor affair, galumphingly conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson who stumbled his way through the delicate twists and turns of the Act I duet and failed to sustain the tension in Act II. Except that Rosalind Plowright sang the title role very well indeed (bar some cloudy diction and a couple of skids above the stave), but looked uneasy and conveyed more of the anxious suburban mum than Callas' - Puccini's, Sardou's - Roman cat. Except that David Rendall as Cavaradossi was audibly suffering from some allergic infection. Except that Henk Smit's tight- lipped Robespierrian Scarpia lacked the breath and power to suggest the man's sen- suality.

The production, directed by Keith Warn- er and designed by John Conklin, proffered the big idea that Tosca is always 'perform- ing' and that life for her is one long piece of 'theatre' - those quotation marks were felt ubiquitously, as the point was slammed repeatedly home through the rise and fall from the flies of a parade of proscenium arches, plush curtains, backcloths of opera house interiors and other flashes of stagey imagery. In addition, a few jejune allusions were made to Fellini's Roma and the dis- torted perspectives fashionable at the Lon- don Coliseum ten years ago.

Which brings me to an uncomfortable subject. Does Dennis Mark's regime at the ENO know where it's going? I won't rehearse my own eccentric views as to the company's betrayal of its Volksoper identi- ty, but I do think it could usefully aim at a style and repertory calculated to appeal to a lower middlebrow West End audience lots more operetta and musical comedy, fewer smart-ass producers salivating at some half-baked notions of deconstruction. Why not forget a moment about the smart graphics and the Time Out readers: how about something more for the coach par- ties from Romford?

Meanwhile, Marks seems to have boobed with his scheme, announced earlier this month, to raise £40 million, through the National Lottery and other sources, in order to renovate the ENO's premises. The press has been really quite beastly about it - in tones indicative, I fear, of more knee- jerk hostility to come - and the tame recep- tion for this Tosca suggests that the public's patience may be wearing a bit thin too. The awful truth about this lottery business is that people rather like their theatres to be a mite tatty: it's all part of the atmosphere. After the horrors perpetrated in the 1960s on the South Bank and elsewhere, who can blame them?