Music: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Edward Dick
Conductor: Garry Walker
A mighty percussive chord, the curtain flies up and a ragged figure makes his entrance via a rope from the ceiling. So begins Opera North’s Tosca and from then on the pace never slackens, giving it at times the feel of a thriller. Joseph Kerman’s famous description of it as “a shabby little shocker” may be unfair, but for this production we could settle for “an opera noir“.
The historical background to Tosca places it in Rome in 1800 over a period of 16 hours. The French army, having protected the Roman Republic they had established, has withdrawn and the Republic has collapsed, though news finally comes through of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo. The man entering the church surreptitiously is Cesare Ancelotti, a former consul of the Republic, on the run, having escaped from prison.
This is a drama of heroic liberalism versus oppressive authoritarianism and this modern-dress staging seems totally appropriate. Ancelotti’s escape involves Mario Cavaradossi, a painter, and his inamorata, singer Floria Tosca, and exposes them to the machinations of police chief, Baron Scarpia, in love with Tosca. Eventually it comes down to a simple bargain from Scarpia: Tosca can buy Cavaradossi’s release with her body. After much brutality and bad faith, the death count includes all the principal characters.
Edward Dick’s splendid production, gritty and spectacular, dates from 2018 and two of the three principals return for this revival: Giselle Allen (Tosca) and Robert Hayward (Scarpia). Sadly the third, Rafael Rojas (Cavaradossi) died last year and the programme pays generous tribute to him. Both Allen and Hayward seem to have added depth and intensity to their performances and the Ukrainian tenor, Mykhailo Malafii, makes a fine impression as Cavaradossi on what seems to have been his UK debut.
Conductor Garry Walker presides over a performance of remarkable intensity, never stinting on the power of percussion and brass in one of the loudest and most dramatic Toscas you will hear, and Tom Scutt’s set adds to the tension, dominated by the dome of the church that proves to be as versatile as it is stylish.
Giselle Allen is completely in command of Tosca, her voice richly in control, bringing out the performer in the character, terrifying in her confrontation with Scarpia. In contrast the Act 1 meeting with Cavaradossi is often playful in tone. Malafii, always impressive, really comes into his own in Act 3 with an affecting “E lucevan le stelle” and a moving duet with Tosca. Hayward is ever-ready to reveal the sordid nature of Scarpia beneath the ramrod-straight posture of authority, all underpinned by his sturdy baritone.
Callum Thorpe’s heroic bass as Angelotti, Matthew Stiff’s ever-venal Sacristan and Bella Blood’s eerie early morning song as the Shepherd Boy complete an excellent cast, together with a posse of dark-suited henchmen for Scarpia.
Runs in repertory until March 2, 2023, then tours.