The Royal Opera House's current production is beamed live to the Big Screen at Belfast City Hall
Alan Titchmarsh. It's not quite the face that I am hoping to see when the big screen at Belfast City Hall goes live at 7.20pm on a golden summer evening, for the last of this season's BP Big Screens 2013 relays from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Yet there he is, the grinning, green-fingered one, quipping affably to camera, and promising a 'passionate thriller' of an opera, filled with 'lust, love, politics, religion and murder'.
Meanwhile, in Trafalgar Square, his über enthusiastic co-presenter Kirsten O'Brien assures Alan that the al fresco crowd is 'mad for it', and analyses a photograph of Scotch eggs submitted by one of the picnicking hundreds. It's not a promising start to the evening.
Mercifully, conductor Daniel Oren is shortly whipping down his baton for the portentous opening chords of Puccini's Tosca, startling the solitary seagull that has been promenading on top of the big screen at City Hall, scoping the sizeable audience of spectators.
Tosca is a perfect choice for the open-air operatic experience – it's packed to bursting point with ardent, hot-blooded emotions, powerfully orchestrated by Puccini in the type of raw, primary colours which communicate viscerally even in an outdoor setting.
Too viscerally, in fact, from my viewing position in the equivalent of the front stalls area, when Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko unleashes ‘Recondita armonia’, his opening aria. From close quarters, the effect is ear-cracking – scooching back 20 metres, however, fixes the balance, and I can still easily decipher the subtitles.
Antonenko, it transpires, is a tower of strength throughout the evening as the love-struck painter Cavaradossi. Ringing, heroic and indefatigable (if not especially subtle), he is vocally galvanising, making it easy to understand why Tosca is attracted to Cavaradossi's potent combination of virility and combustible artistic temperament.
In the first interval there is some unexpected local interest, in the shape of Dominic Peckham, a member of the Covent Garden chorus who also happens to be conductor of the Ulster Youth Training Choir.
Still sporting the crimson cassock he wears in the Act One finale, Peckham is a bundle of energy, bobbing up and down hyperactively, cajoling the Trafalgar Square crowd to sing the ‘Te Deum’ chorus they have just heard in the opera. He’s on a hiding to nothing, however. Half of the punters are sipping Chardonnay, the others, as Peckham puts it, sound like 'a second division football crowd'. Harsh, but accurate.
Act Two is the dramatic heart of Tosca, and much hinges on the singer playing Scarpia, the brutal police chief who likes sexual contact to be violently confrontational, not tenderly consensual.
Texan baritone Scott Hendricks sings the part firmly and resonantly, but somehow never seems quite vile enough. He is more petulant than truly nasty, and struggles to convince you he is a genuine physical threat to the fiery Tosca of Viennese soprano Martina Serafin.
Serafin herself isn’t always a convincing actor: her attempt to batter Scarpia with a candlestick is so hammily telegraphed you could see it coming from halfway down Royal Avenue. Serafin is, though, an excellent singer, injecting her big Act Two number ‘Vissi d'arte’ with impassioned intensity, yet finding genuine pathos too.
That same, difficult combination informs ‘E lucevan le stelle’, Cavaradossi’s last big aria before he cops a hail of bullets in the Act Three execution. It finds tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko still in thrilling voice – he’s probably the only member of the cast who doesn’t lose a little in comparison with the stellar trio of Jonas Kaufmann, Angela Gheorghiu and Bryn Terfel, who sang the main parts in an earlier run of this Royal Opera production.
Jonathan Kent’s staging is visually attractive and largely naturalistic in nature, and while that crucial Act Two confrontation between Scarpia and Tosca is undercooked and stilted in places, Kent’s staging provides powerful visual images for both the execution and Tosca’s subsequent death leap from the ramparts.
A pity, then, that almost before the heroine’s body has time to hit the pavement, we click into voiceover, and a series of truly embarrassing sighs, coos and gaspings (from – you’ve guessed it – Titchmarsh and O'Brien) ruins the impact of one of opera’s most devastating coups de théâtre.
The presenter situation certainly needs re-thinking before next summer’s Big Screens relays. There is work also to be done on the half-hour interval slots. In the second break, for example, we're served a combination of audience food photographs, then ROH director Antonio Pappano expatiates (none too coherently, it must be said) on the difference between diatonic and pentatonic scales.
The juxtaposition of totally trivial and demandingly technical is scrunchingly incoherent: genuflecting towards 'inclusivity', presumably, it ends up pleasing nobody. The Royal Opera should stop condescending to its big screen audiences on these generally wonderful evenings, and put something a little more thought-provoking and nutritious in the gaps between the music.