Scottish Opera have revived Anthony Besch’s 1980 production of Puccini’s Tosca. It is solid, strong and male. Besch transfers the political drama from its original Napoleonic setting to the writhing murk of Mussolini’s 1943 Italy. It makes perfect sense, the darkness of fascism lends itself well to the atmosphere of fear and oppression driving the opera. The narrative is familiar; powerful, predatory men terrorise each other in a futile mess of violence and power. Puccini rips the frivolity out of a night at the opera, this is stark.
The performances are undoubtedly exquisite, Stuart Stratford’s Orchestra are brilliant and the chorus bring life and texture. The central trio are strong and unusually, their voices blend. Natalya Romaniw imbues the eponymous Tosca with vehemence and life whilst Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Cavaradossi is warm and determined. Against them, Roland Wood’s Scarpia slimes with exploited power and arrogance.
Act One is bright but ominous, the plight of escaped political prisoner Angelotti is a stark contrast to Tosca’s misplaced jealousy. The tone shifts when the vast chapel is swamped by the chilling uniforms of fascism, as Chief of Police, Scarpia, and his men enter the stage in search of their fugitive.
For Act Two, Peter Rice’s imposing set consumes the space with the grey weight of fascism. In Scarpia’s office we witness a power play, Cavaradossi is tortured offstage whilst Tosca is taunted and baited with her lover’s suffering. The acting was static and I struggled to believe the violence but, what was lost in their physicality was made up for in the despair and menace in their voices.
Tosca, thankfully is far more than the jealous, fallible diva they all take her to be. She refuses to play the part of desperate damsel in Scarpia’s game; as he attempts to assault her in return for her lover’s freedom, she murders him. It is a necessary, triumphant relief.
Act Three pulses with humanity and tragedy but didn’t move me as it may have. Again the physicality, particularly the attempted naturalism of the chorus didn’t correspond to the melodrama of the arias and the heartbreak of the narrative.
The climax is inevitable and tragic. Tosca, betrayed and option-less, throws herself from the roof rather than be executed for the rightful murder of Scarpia. The futility of her death and of the entire narrative reinforces how perfect this dark, Mussolinian setting is. As the programme suggests, it is as if Puccini, through Tosca predicts the decades of fascist terror and destruction which would follow his death in 1924.
The quality was undoubtedly exceptional. However, the curtain call was melancholically masculine, Romaniw is the sole woman in a swathe of male company. It jars, the heart sinks. The programme makes a strong case for this production’s revival, but if it needs so much justification then perhaps now is not the time? ‘Critics can be sniffier’ than audiences, the programme declares, because critics (as I would hope most audience members to be) are apparently too aware of the zeitgeist. But surely it is possible for a national company to glance at the zeitgeist without losing audiences? This is not to say that this ought never be revived, but there was an air of anachronism about this production.
Nevertheless, it is delivered with passion and quality and gravity, praise is due.
PHOTOS: James Glossop