Ellen Kent's Tosca
Review: Ellen Kent's Tosca, on tour throughout the UK until 28 April. Find booking links here.
[Disclosure: The New Theatre Oxford provided me with free tickets, a souvenir brochure and free drinks during interval for the purposes of this review.]
Ellen Kent’s productions are all about spectacle; there’s a fun, carnival type atmosphere whenever you go to an Ellen Kent opera. An Ellen Kent opera will also reliably involve local children and animals – and so it was with this year’s production of Puccini’s Tosca.
The mysterious soprano, Elena Dee.
Tosca is the story of star-crossed lovers - singer Floria Tosca and painter Mario Cavaradossi – whose love is tragically thwarted by political forces and the evil chief of police, Baron Scarpia.
Tosca and Cavaradossi - though on the night I went Cavaradossi was played by Sorin Lupu, who is not in this picture.
The star of this production was soprano Elena Dee – she has a beautiful rich voice with a pure, luxurious tone that speaks to natural gifts, coupled with some serious practice and training.
Baritone Vladimir Dragos with soprano, Elena Dee.
Where she has trained or what her previous life before coming under the Ellen Kent umbrella is quite mysterious. Kent’s programmes and press releases are not like any others – there’s none of the usual information about the singers or musicians, who designs the sets or costumes or any of the other information that help people connect with the artists. In this instance, google and social media revealed almost nothing – who is Elena Dee – this fabulous soprano and where else can I hear her sing?
Soprano Elena Dee with baritone Vladimir Dragos.
As always, the styling of an Ellen Kent opera is traditionally sumptuous – there will be no experimental or contemporary risks taken here. The sets are luxurious (though not quite as luxurious as the YouTube trailer shows) and the costumes are traditional and look good on stage.
The trailer for Tosca - the sets in the trailer are far more sumptuous than those in the performance I went to.
There are two greyhounds that come on stage with their owners at various intervals throughout the production – it is always fun to see live animals on the stage – and it was fun to see these two, very well behaved dogs. There were children who came on at various intervals and did a rather lovely job of livening things up. Who the children were or which young theatre/musicial group they came from, I’m afraid I can’t tell you as that info isn’t in the programme either.
Elena Dee with Vladimir Dragos.
The other singer that deserves mention is baritone, Vladimir Dragos, who plays the evil Baron Scarpia. Clearly Dragos is under Ellen Kent’s wing and once again - neither the programmes nor google reveal anything about him other than his association with Ellen Kent. I will say that Dragos clearly enjoyed playing the villain in this show and his big, rich voice was used to great effect. Quite often there were some serious intonation and tempo issues – but his panto-esque evil villain performance rose above these problems – in fact – at the curtain call – he was applauded, booed and hissed as per a traditional panto villain and clearly loved every minute of it.
Soprano Elena Dee and baritone Vladimir Dragos.
The orchestra accompanying the singers was the Orchestra of the Ukrainian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. These musicians are working on this tour under the most horrendous circumstances – watching their home country, and in some cases their own homes, burn. During the first of two intervals, Ellen Kent told me that these musicians still do not exactly know whether they can stay in the UK or whether they will be forced by the UK government to go home.* At the curtain call – the singers held up the Ukrainian flag and sang the Ukrainian national anthem accompanied by the orchestra, which came alive.
Ukranian National Opera House, Kyiv.
There will always be a place for opera as spectacle and Ellen Kent’s productions have always filled that gap here in the UK. Though, audience habits and demands are changing and, at least here in Oxford, there was by no means a full house.
Soprano, Elena Dee.
I wonder whether placing a lot more prominence on the art - the musicians/artists, their backgrounds and stories - and putting in some serious rehearsal time as an ensemble – would help audiences connect and keep them coming.
*At the time of writing, I don’t know of any petitions to pressure the UK government into allowing the Ukranian artists and musicians who are on this tour to stay in the UK as refugees, if that is what they want to do.