Tosca, Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra

At: Huddersfield Town Hall

By: William Marshall

AFTER last year’s success with a full staging of La Boheme, the Slaithwaite Phil and conductor Benjamin Ellin turned again to Puccini, with the dark drama of Tosca and her defiance of tyranny.

With a team of first-rate soloists, plus an ingenious production and stage design by Keith Cheetham, this was a bona fide operatic experience, packing the full emotional punch.

But Slaithwaite Phil has developed a distinctive approach. The orchestra, clad in approximations of period dress, occupies half of the stage and is full view of the audience, effectively part of the drama.

A compact, adaptable set occupies the other half and the nature of Tosca – as was the case with La Boheme – is that the action takes place in confined, not to say claustrophobic spaces, so this approach worked well.

The occasional problem is one of balance. With a full-size symphony orchestra on stage, and not placed in a pit that baffles the sound to an extent, there where times when the singers were almost subsumed. Maybe some of Puccini’s dynamic markings needed to be scaled down a notch or two, although it would have been a shame to deny the orchestra – on fine form – the opportunity for full-blooded playing.

There were no imbalance problems in the famous arias, such as “Vissi d’arte”, sung to a relatively spare but soaring string accompaniment. Here, as elsewhere, Sarah Helsby Hughes was excellent – in appearance as well as vocally – and the slight catch in her voice at the end of the aria tugged furiously at the heartstrings.

As the doomed artist Cavadorissi, the tenor Nicholas Sales sung with immense power. You sensed he could fill any opera house in the world, no matter how large the orchestra. His rendition of the famous “E lucevan le stele” was very strong, and again was well balanced with the orchestra.

As the secret policeman Scarpia, Terence den Dulk’s tall, imposing physique, allied to a powerful voice, meant he could almost have been born to play the role. He was dangerous – and dangerously attractive.

Among the other singers, there was a charming and touchingly sung cameo from Huddersfield’s Charlotte Elizabeth Town as the shepherd girl who gives the final act a deceptively calm, pastoral introduction.

The production moved the story from the period of the Napoleonic wars to the 1940s and Mussolini’s Italy, with the Allies poised to invade. It was a device that worked perfectly well although it did not impinge unduly. A clever design touch was the huge, fascistic portrait of Scarpia that was a backdrop to the second act.

The biggest departure was that Tosca died from gunfire, rather than hurling herself off the parapet. This was easier to stage and in the context it made good dramatic sense.

There was a good audience for this ambitious project and no doubt many of those at the Town Hall will be eager to know which opera we will hear next year. For a tradition has now been established.