Sleaford Mods three weeks ago, now Puccini’s Tosca: il South Facing festival, which has brought Crystal Palace Bowl back to life as a performance venue at weekends this summer, has aimed at something for everyone. With most of the audience – except the seated few at the front – stretched out on the grass, watching English National Opera’s singers as much on the big screens as in the flesh, and with Donna Stirrup’s modern-dress semi-staging crammed in front of the orchestra, this performance was taking place very much not under usual theatrical conditions: the burger and pizza stands were doing a brisk trade as Tosca bargained for her lover’s life.
It shouldn’t have worked, forse, and yet a belting musical performance, relayed via an impressively responsive sound system, overcame the distractions. And sometimes the results were magical: David Junghoon Kim’s Cavaradossi was able to sing his wrenching final aria to some actual stars, not just the red lights on Crystal Palace’s TV mast.
The musical success was partly down to the urgency and liveliness Richard Farnes’s conducting brought to the music, and partly to the quality of the cast. It was easy to root for Kim, a real rising star; his singing was sweet-toned and beautifully shaped, but with power in reserve. It was similarly easy to relish Roland Wood’s deliciously evil, suavely sung Scarpia. Then there was Natalya Romaniw’s Tosca, who had real fire beneath her haughty exterior, and often sounded glorious. No soprano should have to sing the first, pianissimo phrases of Tosca’s Vissi d’Arte – Love and Music, in Edmund Tracey’s serviceable, occasionally old-fashioned translation – into a head mic, yet even when she had to scale her voice right back her control never slipped.
Surtitles would have helped; così, pure, would camerawork that better anticipated the entrances and exits. From the stage to the back of the audience is a long way, and it was hard to spot pick out characters wearing dark colours against the black-clad orchestra. These could easily be sorted out next year, if ENO decides to make this enjoyable experiment an annual fixture.