Review: Grange Park Opera’s ‘Tosca’

The opera house introduces its faithful supporters to its new home with a performance of Puccini’s potboiler

All images: Robert Workman

Standing ovations usually come at the end of a night at the opera. Yet Wasfi Kani, Grange Park’s chief executive, founder and driving force, bucked that trend by taking a bow at the beginning of her company’s first night in their new opera house, built in the gardens of West Horsley Place. Her loyal following rose to their feet in appreciation of an extraordinary 18-month journey during which Kani has managed to smuggle a purpose-built venue into the plushest part of the Surrey green belt.

The full story of how Kani successfully moved her opera company from the Grange in beautiful, but comparably far-flung, Hampshire will apparently be the subject of its own fly-on-the-wall documentary, but essentially the story goes like this. After a falling-out with their landlords, the company were left homeless until Bamber Gascoigne (my generation’s University Challenge compère), who was wondering quite what one does with a massive pile one has just inherited from one’s aunt, the Duchess of Roxburghe, offered Grange Park a home and a site for an opera house. The new building, although not yet complete, has been put up with astonishing speed.

The star of the show was the house’s ear-prickingly good acoustic (which I hope doesn’t change too much on its completion). The stage is of grown-up proportions – the theatre as a whole promises to move the company to new levels of artistic endeavour. Sightlines are generous: looking around, I don’t think there’s a seat that gets a raw deal.

Peter Relton’s production is conventional enough and moves the schlock to fascist Rome – cue lots of grey-uniformed strutting from il Duce wannabes. The evening opened cautiously, with Gianluca Marcianò and the BBC Concert Orchestra taking a while to get going. In another coup, the politically motivated artist Cavaradossi is sung by the international superstar tenor Joseph Calleja – his first stab at the role – with easy aplomb and equal dollops of honey and steel. He hides the fugitive Angelotti, sung by Jihoon Kim, from both his jealous girlfriend Tosca, played by the soprano Ekaterina Metlova, and the evil chief of police Scarpia, performed with snarling intensity by Roland Wood. Metlova alternates between bird-like delicacy and full-throated lyrical singing – scoring a particular success with her ‘Vissi d’arte’. The lighting deliberately casts black and white filmic shadows across singers and stage, making it sometimes feel rather like Casablanca.

Musically, the production starts to deliver with Roland Wood’s well-focused heroic baritone in the ‘Te Deum’, in which he gives thanks for victory and plots his own conquest of Tosca. The scenes in which he convinces Tosca to give up Angelotti to save Cavaradossi (now in custody and being tortured) were a dramatic highlight, and his death at the hands of a vengeful Tosca was particularly well handled. The firing squad beckons for Cavaradossi, and Calleja showcases his world-beating voice in a heartfelt and thrilling ‘E lucevan le stelle’.  

As with any country-house opera, the venue is as important as the music. The gardens at West Horsley are full of surprise and magic: punters squeeze through openings in ancient yew hedges, walking alongside Elizabethan walls to their pavilions under giant trees. There is also a restaurant in the house’s ducal parlours.  

From what I saw on the opening night, the posh informality of Grange Park Opera seems to have survived the move, and was perhaps best on display with an impromptu announcement of UK General Election exit polls from the stage by the BBC’s Jonathan Dimbleby. The audience gasped in apparent delight at the upset, the unlikelihood of which was perhaps only matched by Grange Park’s relocation to this exquisite quarter of the Home Counties – all done without dropping a season.

In repertory until 2 July 2017 at Grange Park Opera, The Theatre in the Woods, West Horsley Place, West Horsley. 

***

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