TOSCA performed by Ukrainian National Opera Kyiv presented by ELLEN KENT

TOSCA performed by Ukrainian National opera Kyiv, presented by ELLEN KENT  at the New Theatre, Oxford.

    What a joy to have Ellen Kent back at the New Theatre Oxford with this outstanding production of Puccini’s Tosca. Since her last visit to Oxford in January 2020, the company has faced many challenges, not least in arranging this tour by Ukrainian National opera of Kyiv. The musicians are now in a very difficult and precarious situation. 

           Nevertheless, the production is superlative and lived up to the standards of the Madame Butterfly they performed here in 2020. From the ominous, menacing opening bars, the production gripped and enthralled the audience, and the orchestra, led by their artistic director and conductor, Vasyl Vasylenko, did full justice to Puccini’s sumptuous score. 

     Tosca and Cavaradossi, the artist she loves, get involved almost by accident in political intrigue when his friend, Angelotti (Eugeniu Ganea), an Italian nationalist, takes refuge in the Church of Sant’Andrea to escape the Austrian chief of police, Scarpia, who is seeking to arrest and execute him as a dissident. When Cavaradossi who was in the church only to paint a Madonna, is tortured to reveal Angelotti’s whereabouts, the full brutality of this regime is revealed. Tosca goes to rescue Cavaradossi and she too is drawn into the power struggle. Neutrality is impossible.

    The lead role of Floria Tosca was taken last night by soprano Elena Dee, who sang the lead in Madame Butterfly two years ago. She had great presence from the first moment when she walked down the steps of the church. Her brilliant and very expressive voice is rich, with some violin-like tones, and she seems to have gained in assurance and command in the last two years. The role of Cavaradossi was sung by Ukrainian tenor Vitalii Liskovetskyi, well known from his appearances in Kyiv National Opera and Opera Scotland as well as previous Ellen Kent productions. The two leads were well-matched visually, and interacted beautifully from the playfulness of the opening scenes to the passion of the last. His fine voice was a little tight and tense in the first act, but warmed up to blossom superbly in the final act, which overwhelmed the audience with its power and pathos. 

     The Moldovan baritone Vladimir Dragos as Scarpia was suitably intimidating and carried off the role with vigour, relishing his power and ruthlessness as he sings, “Yes Tosca, I will make my nest in your heart.”  Time stops when Tosca, in her aria “Vissi d’Arte”, reflects on his evil demands. She learns that nobody can avoid being involved in the world’s battles. She has lived for art, but life offers harsh realities.   

   The visual beauty of this production makes it a memorable experience in every way. Ellen Kent Opera is never shy to offer spectacle, and if spectacle is done with artistic taste and dramatic purpose like this it is a theatrical experience of a very high order. The ingenious set of a Baroque archway and a series of niches containing statue serves well for a Counter-Reformation church,  with colourful scenes of choristers and children frolicking, then for the interior of Scarpia’s opulent apartments in the Castel Sant’Angelo. In the last Act it serves as the exterior of the castle, where Cavaradossi reflects on his life in his last moments, and faces the firing squad. 

      If you missed this production, you can still see it on Tuesday 26th April at the Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury. It is also going to Cardiff and Edinburgh. And if you want to book for tonight’s production of CARMEN in Oxford there is still time, on the website of the New Theatre.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Julia Gasper