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Absolutely trad

Hackney Empire
02/09/2004 -  
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca

Natalia Margarit (Tosca), Teimuraz Gugushvili (Cavaradossi), Vladimir Dragos (Scarpia), Voirel Zgardan (Angelotti/Gaoler), Valeriu Cojocaru (Sacristan), Robert Hvalov (Sciarrone)

Nicolae Dohotaru (conductor)

Chisinau National Opera Orchestra and Chorus

The Coliseum was not the only Edwardian music hall in London due to reopen in early February. The Hackney Empire, built around the same time by the same architect, Frank Matcham, reopened on schedule in the first week of the month, and is now restored to its place as the middle-of-the road pleasure palace of Mare Street. The snazzy Ocean venue across the road would have been unimaginable when the Empire opened, but the full and mainly local house for Tosca shows that the old shows can still pack them in.

Only slightly smaller than the Coliseum but similarly arranged, the Empire was probably originally the more genteel house, in a respectable neighbourhood quite unlike low-life Seven Dials. It fell into dreadful disrepair but remained in use as a receiving house for a wide variety of events, including drama, comedy, and all kinds of music, including opera, but with only the stalls and dress circle open. It is decorated outside and in with a rococo Mogul theme that now sets off Pavlovian thoughts of curry, although the original off-white, grey and pink colour scheme and Watteau-style pastoral medallions suggest aspirations to delicacy. The restoration uses art deco red and green instead, presumably because the authentic scheme would be pretty nauseating (and with smoking allowed in the bars at all levels of the auditorium difficult to keep clean), although a dado above the stage and below the medallions, apparently correctly pastel-coloured, is a clashing pink. It is absolutely splendid, an entertainment in itself and well worth a visit.

The National Opera of Chisinau is also a respectable institution that has taken on a new, popular mantle. A Soviet-era state-run company in the capital of Moldova, it now tours commercially with the innermost core operatic repertoire in, to judge from this performance, all-expenses-spared but well thought out conventional productions. The Attavanti chapel wobbled as its door was opened, the painting was in the wings, Tosca's flowers were a touch grubby, her Spanish wine was water and Scarpia didn't rate a blood pellet or the associated laundry. But the costumes were in period, nothing was obviously missing and, far more important, everything made sense and was dramatically engaging.

Even more important, the whole performance had an almost earthy energy that recalled some of the silent movies of a few years after Tosca's composition. The orchestra played as if they had never heard of Richard Strauss and would have turned Johann into a barn dance. The singers, all reasonably well cast, knew who they were, and were completely unapologetic about it. Natalia Margarit as Tosca acted as if she had the most beautiful voice in the world, although she actually produced an occasionally random sequence of sounds, each coming from somewhere different and variously audible, although all pretty much on pitch. Vladimir Dragos as Scarpia was mean to order, and equally oblivious of near tunelessness. Valeriu Cojocaru was a cheerful if not characterful sacristan (doubling the bishop for the Te Deum with a big hat). Teimuraz Gugushvili, the Georgian Cavaradossi, sounded glorious and acted with complete commitment. His biography says that he turned down offers of work in Moscow and western Europe to stay in Tblisi, and you suspect a grand old-fashioned sentimental tenor, and certainly one worth hearing. Altogether, at least as good a cast as you'd hear in a routine Tosca in most houses, and you don't have to schlep to central London to hear them.

HE Elsom



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