Wednesday 1 March 2023

Keenly dramatic: Puccini's Tosca at Opera North with a feisty Tosca, an unexpected Cavaradossi and a remarkable Scarpia

Puccini: Tosca - Robert Hayward - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)
Puccini: Tosca - Robert Hayward - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)

Puccini: Tosca; Giselle Allen, Andrés Presno, Robert Hayward, director: Edward Dick, conductor: Garry Walker; Opera North at the Grand Theatre, Leeds

A modern, film-noir take on Puccini's classic proves to be gripping theatre, with a trio of terrific performances from the leads

Edward Dick's production of Puccini's Tosca for Opera North debuted in 2018 with Giselle Allen (Tosca), Robert Hayward (Scarpia) and the late Rafael Rojas (Cavaradossi). The production returned to the Grand Theatre, Leeds in January 2023 with Giselle Allen and Robert Hayward returning to their roles and Mykhailo Malafii as Cavaradossi (in March, Magdalena Molendowska and Andrés Presno were due to take over as Tosca and Cavaradossi).

I caught the performance at the Grand Theatre on 28 February 2023; Malafii was ill and Cavaradossi was sung by Andrés Presno. Garry Walker conducted, with Callum Thorpe as Angelotti, Matthew Stiff as the Sacristan, Alex Banfield as Spoleta, and Richard Mosley-Evans as Sciarrone. Sets were by Tom Scutt, costumes by Fotini Dimou, and lighting was by Lee Curran.

Scutt's semi-permanent setting for the opera was somewhat abstract yet highly functional, effectively providing all the spaces needed for the mechanics of the plot. Act One featured a dome (with a hole at the centre) with one panel missing. This was what Cavaradossi was painting, the final panel of his Magdalene for the dome, her eyes. The missing panel in the ceiling suggested something off-kilter elsewhere. The stage was surrounded by columns of lights and a semi-circle of altars. The acting area was raised, but leaving a passageway around the altars so a young altar girl could walk around and light them, something that happened both in Acts One and Act Two. 

Puccini: Tosca - Robert Hayward - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)
Puccini: Tosca - Robert Hayward - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)

For Act Two, we were in Scarpia's stylish bedroom (furniture rather 1970s retro), but the set for Act One still surrounded it (the Magdalene now having her eyes), a strange mix of religion, state and private. For Act Three, the dome was on its side, the hole providing both a resting place for the Shepherd boy and somewhere for Tosca to leap from.

Perhaps the most challenging scene to stage is the end of Act One, and too often attempts at realism bring a clash between liturgical and theatrical needs, producing something rather risible. Here, Dick opted for the wonderfully theatrical, almost expressionist, keeping the focus firmly on Robert Hayward's Scarpia, with Lee Curran's dramatic lighting coming into its own.

But Tosca is full of dramatic pitfalls, and if I say that this was the least risible production of Tosca that I have seen in a long time, that is intended as a big compliment. It was also gripping, with something film noir-ish about the presentation. The setting, though 20th century, seemed deliberately unspecific. the costumes' late 1960s feel linked Cavaradossi's revolution to the social movements of 1968. Yet in Act Two, Hayward's Scarpia used live video feeds on his laptop, first to listen to Giselle Allen's Tosca in the off-stage gala, and then to taunt her with Cavaradossi's torture.

Puccini: Tosca - Robert Hayward, Giselle Allen - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)
Puccini: Tosca - Robert Hayward, Giselle Allen - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)

Giselle Allen made a very feisty Tosca, one well able to take responsibility for her own actions. In Act One, she was very physical and clearly had the upper hand with Andrés Presno's besotted Cavaradossi. Allen made Tosca's diva-dom, demanding nature and jealousy more believable here. Act Two was simply one of the most gripping versions of this scene that I have come across. Allen's Tosca had real agency here, and her performance brought the character vibrantly to life. Her account of 'Vissi d'arte', for once, sounded like a woman in extremis rather than the most famous aria in the opera. This sense of Tosca's agency kept going in Act Three, the moment when she turned with the light behind her and upbraided Spoletta and co, before falling dramatically, was very fine indeed.

Andrés Presno was singing Cavaradossi in this production for the first time and singing with the 'wrong' Tosca. His biography does not list Cavaradossi, so this may have been his role debut. None of this mattered as he was clearly embedded in the production. He had a very traditional approach to the vocalism of the role and, any initial uncertainties over, he delivered a fine, Italianate account. His voice has a spinto-like strength to it, though occasionally perhaps he tried a bit too hard. He had rather traditional mannerisms too, his arias felt more like arias, and 'Vittoria' in Act Two, though finely sung, was the only theatrically hammy moment in the act. He died well, too, after a strong account of his aria.

Puccini: Tosca - Matthew Stiff (Sacristan), Mikhailo Malaffi (Cavaradossi) - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)
Puccini: Tosca - Matthew Stiff (Sacristan), Mikhailo Malaffi (Cavaradossi) - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)

It was Robert Hayward's remarkable Scarpia who was one of the prime anchors of the production. Hayward does not have the most beautiful of voices, but his dramatic usage of it was superb. Once he arrived on stage in Act One, the focus was on him, not through sheer vocal power, but instead keen dramatic focus. In Act Two, it was clear that this highly active, still fit man (he stripped down to his vest at one point) was a sensualist and relished the queasy combination of sex and violence that the opera offers. This Scarpia also clearly enjoyed the sparring with Allen's Tosca, her feistiness and agency egging him on. The air between Allen and Hayward fairly crackled throughout the act.

The smaller roles were equally apposite. Matthew Stiff was a characterful Sacristan, his highly detailed performance playing down the comedy and showing us how on edge, living in this police state could be. Alex Banfield's scarily attractive Spoletta and Richard Mosley Evans' burly Sciarrone were the heavies, intimidating in every gesture. Though there was a moment towards the end of Act Two when I wondered whether Dick was trying to suggest Scarpia and Spoletta's relationship was more than just professional! Ross McInroy was the gaoler, whilst Bella Blood made an engaging Shepherd boy.

Puccini: Tosca - Mikhailo Malaffi (Cavaradossi), Giselle Allen (Tosca) - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)
Puccini: Tosca - Mikhailo Malaffi (Cavaradossi), Giselle Allen (Tosca) - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)

In its big moment at the end of Act One, the chorus was in its usual fine form. In the pit, Garry Walker drew a strong and vibrant account of the score, making sure the drama was in the pit as much as on-stage.

Too often productions of Tosca can seem either hackneyed or contrived, either lazily accepting of conventions or trying too hard for reinvention. Here Edward Dick and his cast managed to tread a fine line, giving us a Tosca that was fully recognisable in its lineaments and plot mechanics, but which made us consider he characters anew. All this with fine singing, a balanced cast and some gripping drama.

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