Opera North’s Tosca revival certainly has the power to captivate an audience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Gary Walker (conductor). The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 9.3.2023. (MC)

Robert Hayward (Scarpia) and Giselle Allen (Tosca) © James Glossop

Stage director – Edward Dick
Set designer – Tom Scutt
Costume design – Fotini Dimou
Lighting design – Lee Curran
Choreographer – Maxine Braham

Tosca – Giselle Allen
Cavaradossi – Mykhailo Malafii
Scarpia – Robert Hayward
Angelotti – Callum Thorpe
Sacristan – Matthew Stiff
Spoletta – Alex Banfield
Sciarrone – Richard Mosley-Evans
Jailer – Ross McInroy

In his book Opera as Drama (pub.1956) late American musicologist Joseph Kerman described Tosca disparagingly as ‘that shabby little shocker’. Its enduring popularity with audiences would strongly disagree with Kerman. I never tire of Tosca and it is certainly the opera that I have seen and enjoyed the most.

Puccini’s librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa based Tosca on Victorien Sardou’s French-language dramatic play La Tosca (1887) set in Rome in 1800 at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory in the Battle of Marengo. Set against a disturbing climate of political intrigue and menace there is the turbulent love affair between painter and republican supporter Cavaradossi and Tosca who is Rome’s most renowned opera singer. Police chief Scarpia attempts to rape Tosca who stabs him fatally. Cavaradossi has been tortured and faces a firing squad whom Tosca has paid to deliberately miss. Tosca has been double-crossed and Cavaradossi is shot dead. Unable to stand the torment Tosca throws herself off the building to her death.

This production of Tosca by stage director Edward Dick brings the action forward to the present day and was first given at Opera North in 2018 where it was much admired. In the absence of any explanation from Dick those who know Tosca might assume that Rome was still the location. Original settings are normally my preference although contemporary takes on events often allow me to understand and appreciate the libretto through a different lens. I haven’t seen Dick’s original 2018 staging although I believe this revival is essentially similar, albeit with some tweaks here and there. Audience members could not fail to notice the inclusion of modern items such as mobile phones, laptops and webcams. Overall, Dick is successful with his insights into the emotional characteristics of the three main characters.

Matthew Stiff (Sacristan) and Mykhailo Malafii (Cavaradossi) © James Glossop

Tom Scutt’s sets are impressive, especially in Act I is the substantial, gilded cupola of the church Sant’Andrea della Valle, designed with a number of painted panels. One panel has been taken out for renovation on which Cavaradossi is painting Mary Magdalene with blue eyes and blonde hair. The sides of the shadowy church are rigged with numerous vertical rows of theatre lights and also banks of votive candle racks all lit. The procession scene in the church with the Te Deum at the end of the act can be a spine-tingling visual and aural display, almost spiritual, yet here the group of children running about being chased by nuns was a messy romp that didn’t suit the opera at all.

I have become used to second act of Tosca being set in Scarpia’s office but here Scutt’s vision is a large room dominated by a modern design, low four-poster bed in a distinctive cube-like shape, now all the rage. This feature works well when Scarpia is attempting to coerce and seduce Tosca before overpowering her. In retaliation she stabs him fatally with a knife leaving a bloody scene. Successful too was the dramatic final act where Cavaradossi is shot by firing squad leading Tosca to jump to her death through the centre of the cupola, now positioned at an angle.

Costume designs by Fotini Dimou are contemporary, most noticeably the black tactical military clothing such as balaclava ski mask worn by Scarpia’s gun toting henchmen. As seen in the production photographs Tosca wears beautiful designer gowns and coats, sadly much of the detail was obscured by the shadowy lighting and I don’t think I have ever seen as much dry ice emitted from a stage.

Most memorable of the Tosca performances that I have attended were productions by the Staatsoper Berlin (2016) and Staatsoper Dresden (2019). Both featured the great Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu as the eponymous heroine in one of her signature roles. Gheorghiu sang her Tosca with a natural assurance and supreme style, creating irrefutable dramatic impact. By comparison, with this Opera North production Giselle Allen’s Tosca was a self-assertive heroine who also created splendid drama and so well acted too. My highlight was Tosca’s magnificent aria Vissi d’arte from Act II sung by the Irish soprano producing such compelling expression.

As Cavaradossi, Ukrainian tenor Mykhailo Malafii was quite effective in the role, yet he appeared nervous which affected the smoothness of his delivery. Cavaradossi’s big aria Recondita armonia can be one of the most celebrated moments in opera. Occurring early in the first act the aria is extremely difficult to pull off as the tenor’s voice has not had time to warm up, nevertheless, despite the strain on his high register Malafii did communicate his feelings adequately. On this evidence not a natural actor, Malafii appeared uncomfortable when alone on stage, a situation that improved during his love duet with Tosca.

Scarpia is an evil and conspiratorial chief of police who tortures his victims. I have seen a number of menacing Scarpia’s such as Ruggero Raimondi, Bryn Terfel, John Lundgren, Juha Uusitalo, and Ludovic Tézier who I believe is currently the finest exponent of the role. Opera North stalwart Robert Hayward might not be at the same elevated level as those Scarpia’s mentioned above. Nevertheless, Hayward’s acting was persuasive and his bass-baritone most compelling too, skilled at portraying the character’s moral depravity.

Antony Hermus who conducted Edward Dick’s Tosca for Opera North in 2018 stated ‘There is not a single unimportant note in any of Puccini’s operas’ and I have to agree to the masterly orchestration. At the Lowry Theatre, conductor Gary Walker, his players and chorus clearly relished every note of Puccini’s score and were impressive in a vibrant and well-paced performance. This revival of Edward Dick’s production may not be my most memorable Tosca, but it certainly has the power to captivate an audience.

Michael Cookson

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