Sunday, September 10, 2023

Tosca – a chief of police gets his comeuppance at the hands of an opera diva (NI Opera at Grand Opera House until Saturday 16 September)

Northern Ireland Opera’s autumn production is Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, a tale of illicit love, jealousy, police brutality, murder and suicide set in Rome and running from the afternoon of one day to just after dawn the next in June 1800.

An already jealous opera singer Floria Tosca is further tricked into believing that her lover, painter Mario Cavaradossi, has been unfaithful. Instead he has been sheltering a political prisoner Angelott inside a church undergoing renovation. The corrupt chief of police Baron Scarpia twists everyone’s fear – aided by a spot of old-fashioned torture and sexual coercion – to extract the information he needs to find the on the run convict. By the end of the third act, the body count reaches a suitably operatic high.

Niall McKeever’s sets for each act are surrounded by three floors of modern scaffolding. Cavaradossi is seen to be restoring a huge painting of the Mary Magdalene’s face which stares out at the audience from within a ring of stone. After the first interval, a two-storey villain’s lair sees Scarpia back in his swish office above a prison cell/torture chamber whose walls are replete with bullet holes. All that’s missing is a white cat for him to stroke. And for the final act, we’re up on a rooftop to watch an execution, with the stone eye once again encircling the action and glaring at the audience, as if demanding our response to the on-stage subterfuge.

It’s good to see an increasing number of creatives who regular feature in theatre and opera on this island getting to work behind-the-scenes on NI Opera productions. Ciarán Bagnall’s razor sharp beams back- and side-light much of the action, casting atmospheric shadows and emphasising the black, white and grey set and the many subdued costumes. Designer Gillian Lennox saves the colour for Tosca’s exquisite dresses and cloaks which dazzle throughout.

Svetlana Kasyan brings her powerful soprano voice to the role of Tosca – a celebrated opera diva of her day in Rome – projecting with particular power, though a bit too much wistfully facing the audience rather than towards the other characters. This is operatic theatre and not a concert performance, and Kasyan is not afraid to add a tonal roughness that the character’s emotional state deserves. Her Act II aria Vissi d’arte (I lived for art) is gritty and potent. While the Tosca/Cavaradossi coupling never quite passes the chemistry test between Kasyan and Peter Auty (who looks so much older than his on-stage lover, a late change in NI Opera’s casting of this tenor role), the pair are a brilliant match vocally, particularly in Qual’occhio al mondo (What eyes in the world).

Irish baritone Brendan Collins has strong vocals and conveys a sense of menace from the first moment Scarpia struts on stage. Revealed to be a cop unafraid of using extreme methods – physical and psychological distress – as well as being a sexual predator, Collins digs deep to keep the audience interested in the different sides to villainous Scarpia.

With most musical theatre productions that tour through the Grand Opera House relying on close-miking performers and the use of big PA systems, it’s a treat to hear unamplified singers filling the extensive auditorium over the top of the Ulster Orchestra’s sensitive playing in the pit under the baton of Eduardo Strausser.

The use of live surtitles at the sides of the stage to translate the Italian libretto into English helps enormously with comprehension. Programming two intervals between the three acts gives time for new audiences to settle the plot in their heads and gives time for the impressive sets to be swapped around. Bolstering the NI Opera Chorus with adult and child singers from the Belfast Philharmonic Choir adds greatly to the sense of occasion for the limited number of scenes requiring a crowd. (Tosca’s plot is quite straightforward for an opera, and the small cast means that there are rarely even a handful of characters on stage at any one time.)

Cameron Menzies has created a Tosca production that has visual flair and vocal forte. Aside from the many pluses, one of Scarpia’s henchmen is noticeably quieter than their peers in certain scenes. While McKeever’s concrete chic is very contemporary, some of the sight lines to the side chapels in Act I and the torture room in Act II are poor for a significant minority of the audience. And Tosca’s final leap was somewhat anticlimactic and might have benefitted from the thud a certain prop allowed in NI Opera’s 2019 production of Sweeney Todd.

While Tosca isn’t blessed with the most hummable of scores, its condensed plot and compact cast of characters makes it a good beginner’s production to try out if you want to dip to dip your toe into the opera bath for the first time. Standing up to applaud the performers during the final curtain call, someone in the row behind me likened Tosca to an episode of EastEnders! A Christmas special, perhaps. Director Menzies is giving a free (ticketed) short pre-show talk at 6.30pm before the Tuesday 12 and Saturday 16 performances. That said, the sold-out performances mean it’s too late for you catch this production in Belfast if you don’t already have a ticket unless you join the box office waiting list.

Photo credit: Neil Harrison & Philip Magowan/PressEye

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