Paula Sides in the title role as Tosca (English Touring Opera)
Paula Sides in the title role as Tosca (English Touring Opera)
© Richard Hubert Smith

It's a privilege to bring opera to places other companies cannot reach, as English Touring Opera does with its biannual circuits, and it's a feat of logistical heroism to get it there. But more than anything it's a responsibility, because audiences from Ulverston to Truro gain their initiation to professional lyric theatre through ETO's tours. Even in Hackney, where a refreshingly mixed audience filled the dress circle on Saturday night, you could practically hear the pop of opera cherries.

That responsibility involves not just programming repertory giants like Tosca, but doing them well. And there's plenty to relish for operagoers in the 23 towns and cities where Puccini's melodrama is heading, not least the ripe sound that conductor Michael Rosewell draws from his 30-plus pit musicians in Tony Burke's discreetly reduced orchestration.

There are, however, problems.

No production of Tosca, that blood-red tale of passions both true and perverted, is complete without its villain. And Blanche McIntyre's staging boasts as culpable a rogue as you're likely to meet: one that's superficially attractive but fundamentally treacherous. No, not Baron Scarpia, the depraved chief of police, but Florence de Maré's chic, impractical set.

At first glance it seems innocent enough—four broad steps rise to a lateral catwalk, the whole sliced diagonally by a narrow ramp to an upstage tower—but it undoes the production. I'm guessing that McIntyre planned her Tosca via a model box rather than letting it emerge organically in the rehearsal room, for why else would she acquiesce to its unworkability?

'An exquisite, floated Vissi d'arte'

Evidence to support the model-box theory arises from her physical blocking of the action, with ensemble players artistically disposed about the stage rather than entering to focus on tasks. The principals' interaction is similarly compromised, with an irresistible sense that characters go where they've been sent rather than where the imperatives of human behaviour might take them.

This, in turn, makes for an anaemic Floria Tosca who rarely dominates the action and whose relationships with both Cavaradossi and Scarpia are hamstrung by the need to negotiate steps, obstacles and narrow strips of floor. No room here for a prima donna to preen. It's telling that soprano Paula Sides has her most affecting moment in an exquisite, floated "Vissi d'arte" throughout which she stands motionless in a spotlight. It's the same for Alexander James Edwards as Cavaradossi: the tenor's finest hour comes when he's left alone to deliver a rapturously invested account of "E lucevan le stelle".

The only singer who truly dominates the stage is Aled Hall. One of this country's busiest and best character tenors, he makes far more of the baleful henchman Spoletta than exists on the page. The voice is in fine fettle too, so he's a luxury piece of casting for such a throwaway role. Unfortunately for Craig Smith, who sings Scarpia, Hall shares most of his scenes with him and comparisons are not kind to the senior player.

Smith has a distinguished pedigree and a silken baritone but he is no Scarpia. More tetchy than evil, when he mauls Sides's heroine he ought to exude a sexuality that compels and repels rather than elicit cross-generational distaste. As staged, when Tosca grabs a fruit knife and sticks it to the man there's a sense she's putting him out of his misery rather than hers.

There is a further performance of Tosca at the Hackney Empire on 9 March. It then tours to Poole, Sheffield, Bromley, Snape, York, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Cheltenham, Cambridge, Guildford, Buxton, Warwick, Canterbury, Durham, Perth, Exeter, Truro, Norwich, Stoke-on-Trent, Ulverston and Blackpool until 10 June.

N.B. Paula Sides alternates as Tosca with Laura Mitchell, Alexander James Edwards as Cavaradossi with Samuel Sakker and Craig Smith as Scarpia with Andrew Slater.