Puccini Tosca, Scottish Opera
***** (5 stars)
The production may be nearly forty years old – it was first seen in 1980 – but the message it allows through, uncluttered by ‘concept’ or the desire for ‘relevance’, is clear for all to see, and the singers are allowed to sing without being asked to ride monocycles or paddle through pools of blood: such a relief after so many potentially excellent performances have been ruined by anachronistic ‘concepts’ that make a mockery of the plot, or sets and direction that make the singers perform ridiculous contortions that must interfere with their singing…
The plot of Tosca is quite simple: a jealous prima donna, Floria Tosca, and her artist lover Cavaradossi become embroiled in political machinations when the latter assists the escape of a political prisoner, Angelotti from the notorious Sant’ Angelo prison in Rome. Scarpia, the amoral chief of police, lusts after Tosca and manipulates her first into betraying her lover and then agreeing to give herself to him to save Cavaradossi’s life. Scarpia arranges for what Tosca believes will be a mock execution: when he tries to embrace her she stabs him to death. She joins Cavaradossi and tells him to play dead when the firing squad ‘shoot’ him – but the shots are real. Scarpia’s corpse is discovered, and Tosca leaps to her death from the battlements of the Castel Sant’ Angelo.
The original opera was set during the Napoleonic era, when Rome was the battleground for struggles between republicans and royalists, and centres around real people and real events. This production updates it to the 1940s, when Mussolini controlled Italy but allowed the continued existence of a puppet king and queen: the struggle against tyranny thus becomes more instantly comprehensible to an audience who will remember World War Two but might be hazy about nineteenth-century Italian politics.
The set was a sheer delight – despite spending considerable amounts of time in storage, the realistic and very heavy-looking architectural structures showed no sign of their age, and provided a massive backdrop against which the tragedy played out. The singing was superb from everyone on stage, but special mention must be made of Dingle Yandell’s all-too-brief but magnificently sung Angelotti; Paul Carey Jones made much of the mildly humorous Sacristan, and Aled Hall was smilingly cherubic as Scarpia’s evil-minded henchman Spoletta.
Gwyn Hughes Jones poured out his love for Tosca and his ardent political ideals in powerfully thrilling tones; Roland Wood relished every sadistic moment of torture he could fashion, showing respect for no-one but his master, Mussolini; and Natalya Romaniw gloried in every turbulent emotion as she soared seemingly effortlessly above everyone else on stage. Stuart Bedford’s orchestra occasionally threatened to drown the singers but added their own rich colouring to Puccini’s multi-layered music.
There was magnificent spectacle, moments of intimacy, touches of humour, and thrillingly theatrical moments – above all the final spotlit statue of St Michael hinting at divine retribution for all those who’d been a part of Scarpia’s reign of terror. It’s not an opera that moves me emotionally, but it was so superbly done that I can’t withhold its fifth star. If you want to wallow in Italianate passion with a side order of sadistic malevolence, look no further…
Puccini Tosca, Scottish Opera Runs until Saturday 26th October then Scottish Tour Continues.