Faith and religion

Tom Sutcliffe on two recent operatic depictions of religion and exaggerated religious behaviour

Cavaradossi, the painter in Puccini’s Tosca, is not a believer. Puccini like Verdi takes a dim view of the Church. Scarpia is supposed to be devout, though

no advertisement for faith or morals himself, and Tosca actually believes in religion but concludes the opera with the most heroic suicide in the history of the stage – leaping from the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo. That was one of the best moments of the new English National Opera staging, and not just because it was the end. The last act set is semi-realistic – as if looking up a vast chimney into the starlit sky, about which

Julian Gavin’s painter sings rather gloriously E lucevan le stelle (in English, of course). Camping it up But, sadly, though the director Catherine Malfitano was a fine opera star in her day (who really acted well), just exactly what production involves seems to have passed her by. There was not one moment when one could believe the characters on stage had any genuine feeling for each other. They were all camping it up, pretending. Anthony Michaels-Moore, who knows how to act, played the villain, and also pushed and strained vocally throughout. And Amanda Echalaz as Tosca (promising at Holland Park last season) lacked the secure top notes Tosca absolutely must have. Edward Gardner, the ENO’s novice music director, has no sense of Puccini style, how pace needs to vary and intensity to build, and failed to manage the applause moments for his star’s arias.

It’s easy enough for Anglo-Catholics to judge Tosca critically: the first act ends with a procession of choirboys, choirmen and clergy and the singing of a Te Deum in (premature) gratitude for the defeat of Napoleon. For those who like clerical tat, the new ENO Tosca boasts the longest and widest ferriola I have ever seen on a Cardinal. The production is faithfully clothed in 1800 by Gideon Davey – regency dresses and top hats.

But the overwhelming tone of the religion we see at the first act curtain is fake. Fair enough, you may say. But it’s loading the dice. ENO is no longer a company in a useful sense. It’s all about putting on shows with a West End theatre buzz. But we do not subsidize opera just to have performances and to help the rich pay less for their seats. The taxpayer pays so we can maintain some British skill and professionalism in the opera business. ENO’s preference next season for almost anybody who has not worked there before, or for buying in productions, will soon make British opera as independent and ‘national’ as the nuclear deterrent.

Unusual set

Theater Basel’s new staging of Cavalli’s La Calisto had more interesting religious echoes. It was a traverse production with the stage a narrow strip between the two halves of the orchestra and the audience, divided – as Anglo-Catholic church congregations used to be – between men and women, the latter sitting in the auditorium, and the former sitting in an auditorium specially created for the production on stage. Jan Bosse’s second opera production (hisfirst also in Basel was a brilliant promenade Orfeo) had almost no set – a water spout from the top of the proscenium and a drain under the strip where the actors had some of their scenes, though the cast tended to pop up all over the place, sometimes sitting right next to you.

Cavalli’s music is nothing special but Faustini’s text is great (surtitles there for both audiences). It’s a story about Jove generally misbehaving in classic style (the best Italian comedy about the chief of the gods – we Brits have Congreve’s Semele to be proud of, and the French can boast Orpheus in the Underworld). Juno when she checks out what’s happening turns Calisto into a bear – and later Jove turns her into a constellation. Diana is in love with Endymion. Jove dresses as Diana to deduce Calisto who is as innocent as only a water nymph can be. A great cast included a new Spanish countertenor as Endymion (Xavier Sabata) who sounded as sexy as Jove, and a new Italian countertenor as Linfea Diana’s handmaid (Flavio Ferri Benedetti) who I thought was a woman until his stubble confirmed he was a hilarious drag queen. What with its trio of lecherous satyrs, this is an opera that almost makes you regret the way Christian revelation turned religion so unsexy. Andrea Marcon and the La Cetra Baroque Orchestra completed the event’s sheer heavenly bliss. ND