Tosca at West Horsley Place9:28, 21st June 2017
The opening of a brand new opera house is not an insignificant event, so trust Wasfi Kani, the dynamic CEO of Grange Park Opera, to choose (albeit inadvertently) a day of the utmost national importance – the UK’s 8 June General Election – to inaugurate her company’s new home, the Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley Place. The very existence of this theatre, in the heart of an especially bucolic stretch of Green Belt less than an hour away from central London, is a logistical miracle.
This time last summer, it looked as if Grange Park Opera would be homeless, as it reeled from the shock have having its tenure at Northington Grange in Hampshire terminated by the building’s owners, the Baring family. Riding to the rescue came Bamber Gascoigne, the celebrity TV quizmaster, who happened to have just inherited a rather handsome stately house from his aunt in West Surrey. Kani and Gascoigne put their heads together and in no time had cooked up an idea to turn West Horsley Place, a rambling 15th-century mansion on a 300-acre country estate, into a centre for culture and learning, with a new opera house at its heart.
On opening night, an audience of around 800 people – aristocrats, television celebrities, politicians, captains of industry and media pundits – took their seats in the new theatre, solidly built but still rough-and-ready in terms of its finishing touches, to enjoy a performance of Puccini’s Tosca. As often happens during the summer season of opera in the UK, the rain clouds gathered and the traditional interval picnic was spent dodging the downpours. But none of this dampened the spirits of a particularly game first-night crowd. Between the showers, the evening sunshine illuminated the ancient brick walls and mature orchards which surround the venue.
So much for the building; what of Tosca itself? Grange Park Opera scored a coup by casting tenor Joseph Calleja as Cavaradossi. He gave the evening’s musical element the sprinkling of stardust that lifted it out of the ordinary – a burly, visceral and charismatic presence as the fiery revolutionary who confronts the terror and bigotry of political tyranny. Puccini is a master of dramatic entrances and exits, but we never felt that bone-chilling frisson of pure villainy when Roland Wood’s Scarpia stepped onto the stage. He came across as a sardonic political bureaucrat rather than an overwhelming figure of evil. As Tosca, the Russian soprano Ekaterina Metlova was underwhelming. The voice did everything it should, but her acting skills remained untapped: Tosca is one of the most complex of operatic heroines, with her mix of piety and passion vividly drawn in Puccini’s music. Here, she came across as a prim Mary Poppins – an unlikely accomplice to Cavaradossi’s subversive fervour.
In the pit, the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Gianluca Marciano, gave us a good measure of the score, while never finding the moments of thrilling rapture in Puccini’s music. Similarly, Peter Relton’s production, updated to the Mussolini era, felt restrained and careful. Given all the unknown quantities of a new venue, it was hardly surprising, perhaps, that Grange Park Opera decided to play safe on this occasion: this was an acceptable but quite ordinary staging of Tosca that told the opera’s story engagingly enough. Hopefully, it will have laid solid foundations for more daring, inspiring productions in the future.