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Tosca’s Leap, Sparkling Florez, Billy’s Blow: London Stage

Singers Amanda Echalaz as Tosca and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Scarpia in Catherine    Malfitano's production of Puccini's ``Tosca
Singers Amanda Echalaz as Tosca and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Scarpia in Catherine Malfitano's production of Puccini's ``Tosca" at London's English National Opera. Tosca confronts her enemy Baron Scarpia before his murder. Photographer: Robert Workman/ENO via Bloomberg

May 24 (Bloomberg) -- American soprano Catherine Malfitano has sung Puccini’s opera “Tosca” all over the world. Now she’s directing it in London. Perhaps her move off stage is a step too far.

It’s not that her old-fashioned production at English National Opera is car-crash terrible. It’s just that it looks like everybody else’s creaky “Tosca,” only cheaper.

So we get the usual period costumes circa 1800 (designer Gideon Davey). There are the usual locations of a church, a stateroom, and a castle roof, here created by tall columns and a moveable curved platform (designer Frank Philipp Schlossmann).

Unusually, however, the ending is mangled. The angry mob that rushes on baying for Tosca’s blood simply waves at her a lot and then takes off, leaving her peacefully alone to make her death leap. Had they forgotten a running tap? Why didn’t they just push her off themselves?

For the defense, the rest of the narrative is clearly told. If the characterization is basic -- there’s lots of sadistic sneering and lustful lunging from the villain Scarpia -- it nevertheless makes sense. The “Te Deum” finale to Act 1 is nicely choreographed.

The strong point of the show is South African soprano Amanda Echalaz in the title role. She looks every inch the diva, and marshals her enormous vocal reserves with subtlety.

Echalaz sounds sweet when dreaming of her love nest in Act 1. Then later in her Act 2 battle with Scarpia, her huge gleaming top notes almost blast the roof off the Coliseum.

Brash Reading

Julian Gavin (Cavaradossi) and Anthony Michaels-Moore (Scarpia) sing pleasantly without creating the same thrills as Echalaz, and conductor Edward Gardner gives a suitably loud and brash reading of the score.

Echalaz’s performance aside, it all feels pointless. Malfitano has nothing new to say about “Tosca” (her sixth opera production since 2005) and her effort pales beside the similarly traditional, though more lavish, offering you can find at the Royal Opera.

ENO would be better to counterpoint Covent Garden, not pump out same-old-same-old.

Rating: **.

Coloratura Slapstick

It’s all very different at Covent Garden for the moment, where a dream cast is appearing in Laurent Pelly’s hilarious and ingenious production of “La Fille du Regiment.”

Natalie Dessay, a natural comedian whose slapstick is as great as her coloratura, shines as the rough military orphan Marie who suddenly finds herself thrust into high society. She’s matched by Juan Diego Florez as her village lover Tonio, who pings out his nine famous top Cs with superhuman ease and beauty, and who pours out pathos like nobody else.

Pelly’s production mixes and matches periods of history to create an amusing topsy-turvy universe, and Bruno Campanella’s conducting keeps everything light as a souffle.

All this, and there’s also comic support from Dawn French in a speaking role as a horrifically pompous old duchess.

Opera doesn’t get any better.

Rating: ****.

Billy’s Blow

Glyndebourne, an opera company located in the Sussex countryside south of London, opens its season with a stirring production of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd.”

Based on a novella by Herman Melville, the opera tells the story of a kindhearted young sailor who strikes his evil Master-at-Arms John Claggart in a blind fury. The blow proves fatal, and he is hanged for the crime.

The singing is first rate. Baritone Jacques Imbrailo emits a glowing, rich sound as Billy, tenor John Mark Ainsley brings authority and vulnerability to the tormented Captain Vere, and bass Phillip Ens booms and rumbles with impressive force as Claggart.

Mark Elder’s conducting provides atmospheric sweep and exciting details, such as the ambiguous erotic sleaziness of the mournful saxophone solo after a flogging in Act 1.

Michael Grandage’s period-costume production (his first as an opera director) is solid if unexciting. He chooses to set the story below decks rather than, as more usual, open to the sky. At first, it feels suitably claustrophobic, and then during the battle scene it becomes limiting and murky. That doesn’t prevent the production being a musical pleasure.

Rating: ***.

“Tosca” is in repertory at ENO through July 10. Information: or +44-871-911-0200.

“La Fille du Regiment” is in repertory at the Royal Opera through June 3, or +44-20-7304-4000.

“Billy Budd” is in repertory at Glyndebourne through June 27, or +44-1273-815000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, Bloomberg News’s arts and leisure section. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at

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