Scottish Opera: Tosca
by Enxhi Mandija
courtesy of Scottishopera.org.uk
There are some women, in art and in history, that disturb and fascinate in equal measure. Like moths to a light, we are drawn to them for the same reasons we recoil from them in fear – they are Medea, Morgan, Lady Macbeth – and Tosca. In this production of Puccini’s opera, directed by Jonathan Cocker, her tremendous character – her charisma, her jealousy, her unflinching moral standing – comes to the fore, thanks to outstanding performances from both cast and orchestra that convincingly evoke the atmosphere of the original without, however, necessarily adding anything new.
A stark, brutal tale of violence devoid of thrills and sentimentality, where villains are villains and heroes are nothing but human, it was not particularly well-received in its 1900 premiere, for it was felt to be too realistic, too violent. In 1900, audiences thought of the opera as light, pleasurable entertainment; what made Tosca a controversial work at the time is what makes it a compelling one now.
Andrew Risch’s 1980 adaptation, on which this Scottish Opera revival is based, sets the scene in 1943, in the days of terror as the Allies have just started taking over Italy, while the regime is tightening its stronghold on the nation and anti-fascist repression is at its worst. Puccini’s Tosca was set in 1800, during tensions between Napoleonic supporters of a republican state and royalist conservatives. The logic behind Risch’s choice is simple: the tense political climate and the violent tales of fascist Italy would have been much more familiar to a 1980s audience that the distant and intricate politics of 1800, reasoning which still bears even more relevance today.
The performances, in this Scottish Opera revival of the 1980 production by Anthony Besch, are superlative. Gwyn Hughes Jones is genuine and convincing as Tosca’s good-hearted lover Cavaradossi, even though he felt a bit subdued at times; Roland Wood as ruthless Scarpia embodied the character so well he got booed during the curtain call, as if it was Baron Scarpia, not the performer, saluting. Natalya Romaniw’s Tosca, against these two different but controlling, polarising masculinities, emerges in her fierce humanity oscillating between extreme emotion and a granitic, unique moral code. Her performance was controlled and dramatic to the right extent, never exaggerating into sentimentalism – the most gut-wrenching moments were those tense instances where her voice would falter from the soprano lines and utter a word in parlando, without singing.
Stage design is perhaps where this revival could have added strength or a new twist to the opera. Faithful to Besch’s vision, which is in turn very close to Puccini’s, the stage makes you aware you’re unequivocally in Rome – a Rome which is baroque, excessive, ornate, taking up too much space. It is telling that the first two acts take place in interiors (a church and Scarpia’s room in Palazzo Farnese) but the third is an open scene, a liminal space: the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome’s prison, from where Tosca leaps to her defiant death. While that is meant to complement the atmosphere of suffocation and inescapability, it does reduce the scope of the action – there is a lot of standing around and pacing up and down.
A revival of a classic demands at the same time renovation and preservation – you want it to be familiar, but at the same time you don’t want to see something you’ve seen a thousand times. I would have preferred a more modern take, for instance in a more minimalistic approach to set design.
To those already familiar with Tosca, through this or other adaptations, it’s worth going along to for the sheer high level of the production and the performances. To those who aren’t, it’s certainly a really good place to start.