Let me begin by saying that given the time it took to clear the circle at the intervals and the end of the performance, I never want to be in the Circle in the National’s Olivier theatre in the event of a fire. Having finally made it to the toilets I met the inevitable queue, this time including a group of 4/5 American college students:
A: That Iago! What an asshole!
B: I know! I just wanted to shout “Fucker!”
They certainly spoke for me! Delayed review is delayed, indicating only my invariable dislike of writing reviews of plays. I never feel I can really convey why/how something worked for me – of course, I don’t actually have to, but there you go. Anyway, this was Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago, and it was fantastic. It was modern dress and military and it was striking how much this laid the emphasis on Iago. I came away thinking, ‘No-one ever describes it as a play about class,’ which of course it is. Or rather, its treatment of race, for which it is best known, cannot be divorced from its treatment of class and also sex. I spent most of the train journey home shaking my head at my having never opened a Marxist reading of the thing**. Anyway, Lester was strong, but Kinnear was terrific. I also gained a new appreciation for Emilia, the importance of her character for the plot, and the depth of characterization she’s given; helped, I think, by being played by a younger actress than she often is, and having her as a female soldier, so getting away from the Generic Shakespearean Nurse.
This was Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre in Oxford, which isn’t new and has the usual problem of theatres its age: terrible water pressure at the top of the building. On this occasion I disagreed with the queue critics, or at least the one (woman in her 60s) who thought that Act I Scarpia wasn’t evil enough. She wasn’t alone in that – the Guardian reviewer thought the same – but personally, though I enjoy a black trenchcoat as much as the next opera fan, I like a little variety in my Scarpias***. The production had picked up on a lot of the political plot, and if you’re going to emphasize Cavaradossi as revolutionary, I think it helps to consider his enemy as an explicitly political opponent and not simply Satan incarnate. Besides, it turns out the sheer amount of sleaze you can achieve by putting a smoking jacket on the floor and considering whether to add a cushion is pretty impressive.
It was a fairly classic production (hurray for C18 clothing as a change from Edwardian fascist), but had some good bits of business and fresh – to me - ideas. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the fact that Cavaradossi has been painting the Marchesa Attavanti (and thus advertising to all and sundry that she’s been there a lot lately) presented as political crisis. There he is, assuming that she’s a young woman with a juicy secret and taking advantage of it to paint her, and then he’s told the truth and has an awful moment of realising that ‘It was a sister’s love! And oh hell, I’ve just told everyone what’s going on and given away the revolution!’ I also liked the bit in Act II when the Napoleonic victory is announced and Cavaradossi celebrates, and the production has to decide what everyone else is doing while the tenor gets to digress with some high notes and why don’t the baddies just shut him up? In this case, the announcement’s made, Cav jubilates, and Scarpia and henchmen get out a map and start considering what this actually means, which actually puts everyone’s actions into context. Credit also goes to the translator/dramatist of the surtitles, which were not merely non-embarrassing (quite an effort for Tosca), but really good.
So well-sung, decently acted (Scarpia was best, he usually is) some good ideas, and a good band, which is what I want from Tosca, seeing as it has, in the central hour, some of what, as far as I am concerned, is the best music and drama in opera. If Figaro is up there alone on an aethereal pinnacle, the Te Deum**** to the end of Act II is definitely on the first earthly plane.
*A few moments later, another woman in the group, discussing Desdemona:
C: But she makes it, right?
D: No! She [lost in sound of flushing]
** I cannot reconcile myself to Cassio. Also, sod ‘motiveless malignancy’.
*** Up to a point. The Opera North version with Scarpia as an Inspector Frost-like character in a grubby mac and eating pizza was a fantastic one-off, but let’s face it, audiences usually expect a certain amount of sex appeal in their Scarpias.
****The piece I would most like to sing were I an opera singer, and the reason baritones are better than tenors. It’s also the one good bit of Quantum of Solace.