BWW Review: TOSCA, King's Head Theatre
Adam Spreadbury-Maher has a long history with the King's Head Theatre. As its Artistic Director and co-founder of OperaUpClose, he has overseen many successful opera productions, including The Coronation of Poppea and the multi award-winning La Bohème. Set in the tiny space behind the pub bar, every production has retained an intimacy that can only be achieved when the producer has neither the space nor the cash for bigger things. This remains a unique experience for the audience and showcases opera like nowhere else.
This production of Tosca is the last opera to be staged at the King's Head before it moves to brand new premises down the road. This is Spreadbury-Maher's second staging of the opera at the King's Head. In 2012 he set it in communist east Berlin, which did not quite click. This production is in occupied Paris in 1944 where Tosca and lover Cavaradain (Cavaradossi) attempt to outwit Nazi commander Scarpia and his henchman Villaplane (Spoletto). This choice works well and the clever adaptation of the libretto by Spreadbury-Maher and soprano Becca Marriott smoothly includes period specific events such as the Normandy landings and Auschwitz.
The production strips the large cast back to just four members and a whole orchestra to simply a piano, cello and clarinet. As usual in this space, it is brave and leaves nowhere to hide for the musicians and the singers. Reducing Puccini's masterful score to such an extent means that some of the swell of emotion is lost. The musicians are very talented and there is a lot of style and animation knitted into the playing, but it is inevitable that the sheer grandeur of the score is missing.
What carries this production is the cast. Philippa Boyle takes the title role with enough power and passion to shake the most weary audience member wide awake. It is also rather wonderful that she can act; her body language and facial expressions jump deftly between the suitably coquettish and the temptress consumed with jealousy. Her clear and sharp soprano demonstrates her classic Italian training, showing both colour and emotion, particularly in the adaptation of 'Vissi D'Arte'. She is definitely a diva in the making.
Przemyslaw Baranek plays a louche, yet chilling Scarpia in sharply tailored pinstripe suit and pencil moustache. His sexually charged behaviour towards Tosca is horribly compelling to watch, especially as he licks her fingers as he writhes against her. He has very good vocal control and engages well with Boyle's soprano.
Baranek also compliments the vocals of Thomas Isherwood, who is excellent as Villaplane; the finale at the end of Act 1 showcases the power of both men's voices.
Martin Lindau is less successful as Cavaradain; the manner in which he plays the part is too vanilla, so the audience struggles to care enough about his fate. His tenor is steady, but strains on some of the more powerful notes. In his duets with Boyle, his voice is lost beneath hers.
It is also a shame that there is a real problem with the chemistry between Boyle and Lindau; the flirtation and numerous bouts of kissing are unconvincing, despite Boyle's best efforts. There is a much better frisson between Boyle and Baranek, who positively boils over with twisted desire.
In a generally well-directed production, there are a few odd decisions in Act 3, such as leaving Scarpia's dead body on his desk and the huge amount of smoke billowed onto the stage, making a clear view of the performers almost impossible.
For all the niggles, this is a clever and incredibly engaging production, performed with passion and clarity by a talented cast. Long may these operatic productions exist, as there is really is nothing else quite like them.
Photo Credit: Jacob Sacks-Jones