There is much delight in living deep in the Dorset or Devon countryside, but there’s no denying a certain lack of cultural opportunity. Anyone who enjoys live opera must be prepared to travel all the way to Poole or Plymouth, or at best Exeter, to indulge their passion - so to find a production of Puccini’s Tosca, staged right in our midst in a village church, in Kilmington, was a noteworthy event of itself.
The ever-ambitious STAG (Shute Theatre and Arts Guild) joined forces with The English Opera Ensemble, a company of singers led by Hawkchurch soprano Anna Gregory, to deliver not a pocket version, as is common at so many opera festivals, but a full length performance with a strong cast of professional soloists, ably supported by local talent, notably sweet-voiced soprano Chloe Stratta.
Tosca was famously dismissed by a sniffy critic as ‘a shabby little shocker’. It is not, indeed, a subtle story - dealing as it does with jealousy, blackmail, attempted rape, murder and multiple betrayals. But it’s a tremendously exciting one, and when epic music and a thumping good story come together as they do here, there’s no better entertainment. This is opera as it should be enjoyed - not peering through binoculars at specks on a distant stage, but up close and personal. When the villainous Scarpia strides down the nave to strike fear into the hearts of the lovers, we also quake in our boots as he passes. We see Tosca drop the hand of her would-be seducer as if it were something dirty and see him flinch, and log the insult, and know that she will pay. (The English Opera Ensemble set as high a priority on good acting as fine singing.) We see Tosca, who until now, she sings, has lived only for art and music, struggle to find the courage to murder. And when she has done so, we feel the boundless depth of her horror. When opera works - and it was working full tilt on this stormy night in a packed, candlelit church (the chorus having to enter and leave somewhat damp) - it reaches not just to heart and head but straight to the gut.
This intimate staging revealed Tosca in all its raw emotional power - the highest of high drama, but also intelligent and psychologically compelling. These were characters we wanted to believe in - from the first appearance of Justin Bindley’s deliciously bumbling Sacristan flicking his duster, to Cameron Rolls’ moving portrayal of Cavaradossi as a young man forced to grow up abruptly over 24 hours, both as ideologue and lover.
At the heart of the opera lies the titanic clash between the diva Floria Tosca and the police chief Scarpia - magnificently realised by Anna Gregory and Stephen Holloway. In a thrilling performance, Gregory gloriously eschewed prettiness and silkiness of tone for a visceral passion, rage and disgust. In other, very celebrated, hands, the aria Vissi d’Arte, for all its beauty, can feel like a red herring, halting the action at the critical point. Here, every phrase crackled with shock and outrage at Tosca’s diabolical dilemma. Her dismay following the murder was palpable, while the anguish of her betrayal in the final act was almost too painful to watch.
An enormous presence, in voice, physique and emotional power, from his first electrifying entry, Holloway brought a genuine sense of chill to the role of Scarpia. The malevolent police chief is often characterised as a seedy, leering little pervert. This Scarpia filled the space with a lofty, imperial arrogance - a man whose lust was for dominion, to crush his hapless victim to his will. Resistance, his very bearing suggested, was futile: the woman who could thwart so commanding a man must be not only cunning but insanely brave.
Inevitably, limitations of space and budget precluded an orchestra, so its place was heroically supplied by award-winning accompanist Elspeth Wilkes on piano, supported by David Gostick on the church organ. Puccini is a master of creating soundscapes, so there were inevitably moments when one missed the swell of the strings, the peal of bells and especially the haunting clarinet line in the famous aria E lucevan le stelle, but on the whole it was remarkable how well the single piano score worked, being entirely of a piece with the intimacy and directness of the action.
This presentation, of course, placed huge demand on the singers. Without Puccini’s voluble score to support them, the performers had to bear the whole emotional and melodic weight unaided. They did not disappoint. (Curiously, one of the high points of the evening was when the piano fell away, and lovers Cavaradossi and Tosca sang of their the future, their voices, blended in doomed hope, rising to the rafters. ) The church venue added an intriguing extra dimension - though the austere simplicity of St Giles could scarcely be more different from the Baroque grandeur in which Puccini set his first act. The space was cleverly used, with the vestry doubling as a torture chamber, and Tosca watching the ‘mock execution’ of her lover from the pews. Every one of these pews was jam-packed, and the performance was received with a standing ovation.
So it’s safe to say that East Devon’s first essay into the world of Grand Opera was a roaring success. Let us hope it is the first of many.