Love is Loud: Tosca from the Opéra de Lille

Puccini – Tosca

Floria Tosca – Joyce El-Khoury
Mario Cavaradossi – Jonathan Tetelman
Il barone Scarpia – Gevorg Hakobyan
Cesare Angelotti – Patrick Bolleire
Il sagrestano – Frédéric Gon
Sciarrone – Matthieu Lécroart
Spoletta – Luca Lombardo
Un carciere – Laurent Herbaut
Un pastore – Violette Desmalines, Emma Ponte, Marion Smith

Jeune Chœur des Hauts-de-France, Chœur de l’Opéra de Lille, Orchestre National de Lille Région Hauts-de-France / Alexandre Bloch.
Mise-en-espace – Olivier Fredj.  Video director – Olivier Simmonet.

Opéra de Lille, Lille, France.  Thursday, June 3rd, 2021.  Streamed via YouTube.

The lifting of restrictions on audience access to theatres in the French republic came a little too late for this new production of Tosca at the Opéra de Lille.  The house had worked exceptionally hard to produce a show for transmission that was appropriately safe for the cast members.  As a result, they were unable to host an audience – with the orchestra taking up the whole of the floor of the theatre, Alexandre Bloch conducting his band in the round, with the chorus in the first balcony.  Instead, they chose to make the show free of charge on their YouTube channel for the next week, as well as broadcasting the production into cinemas throughout the Hauts-de-France region. 

Photo: © Simon Gosselin

Olivier Fredj was credited as the director of a mise-en-espace, but what Fredj gave us was so much more than that.  This was a fully lived in staging, using some minimal props and the full depth and width of the stage to create an evening of exciting theatre.  The evening opened with shots of the chorus taking their distanced seats in the balcony and a man being actually shot in an execution on stage.  In doing so, Fredj immediately established the idea of a Scarpia-supporting crowd watching the action.  While we didn’t get a full portrait of the Attavanti as the Madonna, we did have Cavaradossi’s sketch pad upon which he drew her. 

Photo: © Simon Gosselin

Even within the limited environment, Fredj created some memorable stage pictures, not least in Act 3 with spotlights ranged along the stage, reinforcing the idea of Cavaradossi’s ‘fake’ execution, and while there was no leap from the battlements, what Fredj gave us was equally convincing, leaving us with a sense that all that happened to the three protagonists was completely inevitable.  It helped also that he had a pair of highly charismatic lovers in Joyce El-Khoury and Jonathan Tetelman.  There was a genuine chemistry between them – particularly in the way that Tetelman’s Cavaradossi whispered instructions to El-Khoury’s Tosca not to betray him in Act 2, or Tetelman’s visible disbelief that the execution was fake but his desperation to give Tosca some comfort in the moment.  Given the sanitary restrictions that made this production necessary, Fredj has made so much of little and given us an evening of high drama and gripping theatre.

Photo: © Simon Gosselin

Musically, there was much that was good.  El-Khoury was a stirring Tosca.  She poured her heart out in ‘vissi d’darte’, which she phrased with love and attention.  She was also unafraid to get chesty, her ‘muori dannato’ given just the kind of abandon it needed, although it did reveal that the registers aren’t ideally integrated down there.  Her copper-toned soprano is certainly a distinctive instrument and she was fearless on the top, although again I left with the impression that the voice doesn’t quite spin in the upper reaches.  Dramatically, El-Khoury was more than convincing, bringing out the jealousy and loving nature of her character, and it will certainly be interesting to see her grow in the role over the next few seasons.  Tetelman sang an ardent Cavaradossi and certainly didn’t hold back on the volume.  His ‘vittoria’ must have been heard in Rome itself.  Fortunately, he did pull back on the volume in his ‘e lucevan le stelle’, shading it with care and attention.  I did find his full-throttle singing in the Act 1 love duet a bit de trop, but this isn’t a subtle opera and in the theatre it may well have been exciting.  That said, other than a couple of isolated patches (such as the ‘vittoria’), I didn’t get a sense of someone pushing his instrument further than it could go and he demonstrated some impressive breath control in that Act 1 duet. 

Photo: © Simon Gosselin

Gevorg Hakobyan brought his darkly impressive baritone to the role of Scarpia.  This is a part that he has sung in some of the major Italian houses, yet I left with a sense that he wasn’t as engaged with the text as he could have been.  The voice is impressive, with an admirable depth of tone, although there is a tendency for it to discolour higher up.  His legato is also not quite as smooth as one might hope, the line filled with aspirates – though again, he demonstrated some impressive breath control.  He was engaged with the staging, particularly with some menacing business with a grape, and his obsession with Tosca was evident from his acting.  The remainder of the cast was admirable, with particular credit to the three young ladies who sang the Shepherd’s song in unison – presumably members of the well-trained children’s chorus.

Photo: © Simon Gosselin

Alexandre Bloch led a reading that was full of lyricism.  He didn’t shirk from the big moments – Scarpia’s entrance in Act 1 was seriously menacing in its brassiness.  He also obtained some impressive depth of string tone from the Orchestre National de Lille.  I did, however, find that Bloch had a tendency to let the tension drop in places, particularly in the torture scene in Act 2 where ideally there should be an inexorable forward momentum.  That said, his tempi were sensible and he gave his singers space to phrase freely.

This was the kind of evening where one would leave the theatre satisfied after a night of high drama, if not without a few reservations.  The singing was always serviceable, even if in places, it felt more of a work in progress.  What Fredj has achieved with the limited resources and within the sanitary restrictions is seriously impressive, giving us such a fully lived-in show that it in no way felt like anything was being done by half.  Undoubtedly worth a couple hours of your time. 

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