Tosca – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
By Eve Luddington, September 2018
Tosca, Rome’s star opera singer, is deeply in love with charismatic artist Cavaradossi. When he is arrested and tortured by Scarpia, the corrupt Chief of Police, Tosca becomes the victim of cruel blackmail: she plots her revenge, but the consequences are more terrible than she can imagine…
‘One of the world’s most popular operas, Puccini’s melodrama of lust and love, cruelty and self-sacrifice, portrays people at their best and very worst. The high-octane score veers from tenderness to brutal power.’ Armed with this information from Opera North’s publicity, and a plot synopsis, I went to see their production of Tosca, the first I’ve seen of this opera. Although it’s sung in Italian there are English subtitles and the clarity of the direction made it a very satisfying experience.
The story is set in Rome at a time of political turbulence. It’s a tragic love story in which religious ritual dominates the lives of the characters while jealousy, blackmail, attempted seduction and murder dominate the action.
“A stunning opening”
Tom Scutt’s design is highly suited to an opera which exposes the hypocrisy of religious practice, and the present-day setting of the production reveals its relevance to the Catholic Church’s current self-examination – and not just that church’s: the programme includes a photo of President Trump, head bowed in front of a cross. Three striking sets are linked by the continual presence of a vast church dome.
There is no overture. Act I begins with loud crashing chords and the curtain rising onto a dimly lit stage dominated overhead by the painted interior of the dome through which we see, shinning down a rope, a dishevelled figure that we come to realise is a political prisoner on the run and desperate for sanctuary. This makes for a stunning opening.
Act II is in the apartments of the castle where the Chief of Police, Scarpia, perpetrates his evil, most notably in this production on and around his large four-poster bed. The bed seems rather a crude statement of Scarpia’s lusts but, with the omnipresent dome above, it communicates well the ambivalence between his professed beliefs and his actions.
In Act III, the dome hovers over the battlements of a castle and twinkles with stars which fade as the sun rises for the climax of the opera.
Within each Act Lee Curran’s lighting design, which includes banks of floodlights and votive candles and torches – and, in Act II, bedside lamps and candles – brilliantly conveys change of scene and mood.
Puccini’s music makes a melodramatic story deeply moving. Crashing brass and percussion contrast starkly with lyrical passages, and a threatening undercurrent invades some of the most beautiful sections of church music, as in the Te Deum.
The excellent orchestra performs with great sensitivity and feeling under the baton of Antony Hermus. Hermus is totally in tune with the singers too, pacing the piece perfectly for tension and atmosphere to support their performance.
Rafael Rojas, as Cavaradossi breathes and sings passion through every pore. He is deeply in love with his art, his lover and his political allegiances. This Cavaradossi is never swayed from his loyalties but his emotional turmoil is powerfully realised. His aria in Act 3 where he dreams of the stars and his lover while awaiting death, is visceral.
Giselle Allen portrays Tosca, who is a professional opera singer, as a true diva who burns with the idea of love, rages with jealousy and dramatises her life as she lives it – but when she’s desperate, her tender feelings will out. Her aria, ‘I lived for art, I lived for love’, is sung not with high drama but with the gut-wrenching emotion of a woman in total despair. And amazingly, she’s lying down or kneeling for much of it.
I wasn’t entirely convinced that this Tosca was as much in love with Cavaradossi as he was with her, but I completely believed that she would do anything to save his life. The duet between Tosca and Cavaradossi in Act III carries an enormous range of emotions and the performers’ voices were in great rapport – a stirring and hopeful prelude to the final devastating conclusion.
As the corrupt Scarpia, Robert Hayward is no melodramatic villain. His rich baritone voice conveys controlled menace and unbridled lust with equal conviction. Physically, his insouciance and inner stillness as he commands his black-clothed henchmen are as intimidating as his unbridled lechery. Particularly threatening is his first appearance through a group of choristers who are playing about before a church service. And, as the Te Deum is sung, his cry, ‘Tosca, you make me forget God’, will ring in my ears for a long time. Scarpia has no aria but in his expressive monologue in Act II, Hayward really exposed the supreme egotist man beneath his apparent religiosity.
One or two of the directorial decisions seemed a bit dubious. For example, Scarpia’s marching across his double bed to assert his power, which seemed clumsy to me: it detracted from Hayward’s excellent characterisation. Otherwise, Edward Dick, director, has made a Tosca for today, with a first-class team.
Next to me in the audience were two women who’d never been to the opera before. I asked them what they thought of it. ‘Wow!’ said one, ‘I wasn’t prepared for so much emotion – and so many goose bumps.’