TOSCA, SEI TU ! Opera North Scale the Battlements at the Lowry

Anita Ferguson, a Streetwise Opera performer from Manchester, wrote the following review of Opera North’s production of Tosca. In 2018, Anita was selected to take part in the Greater Manchester Critics initiative, which is supported by the Royal Exchange Theatre, Contact, The Lowry and HOME:

Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca was premiered in 1900 and set in Napoleonic times. This Opera North production is set in the present day, at a time of political unrest. It is a work of great passion and melodrama, power and betrayal. All the action takes place in less than twenty four hours, the swift score always pushing us forward. We begin in a church with a huge imposing pantheon style dome, with an unfinished image of Mary Magdalene. Artist Cavaradossi is painting her eyes. He finds escaped political prisoner Angelotti hiding here. The liberal Cavaradossi decides to help him. Rafael Rojas sings to a picture of his great love, Floria Tosca. He gives a stunning rendition of ‘Recondita Armonia’ and I am moved by its beauty and all that raw emotion.

Tosca hears voices as she enters the church and assumes her artist lover is with another woman The air bristles around her as she moves. She is a petulant, insecure child in the body of a sensuous, jealous woman. Floria is an opera diva and she seems to takes her work home with her! Giselle Allen has great stage presence; I am already pulled in.

Chief of Police Scarpia arrives in search of Angelotti. He is enraptured by Tosca and plots against her lover. Robert Hayward’s wonderful bass voice is sometimes mellow, mellifluous and sympathetic; then it grows threatening and powerful. He is pious and full of religious fervour, yet is devoid of human empathy and conscience.

Cavaradossi will not give up his friend and is dragged to the castle for interrogation. Scarpia has him tortured, making Tosca listen to his cries and she she cannot bear it and tells him where Angelotti is hiding. The music is now shifting and erratic, and then with moments of calm and contemplation. I notice that sometimes the singing goes against the rhythm of the orchestra, highlighting the chaos and turmoil. The orchestra, conducted by Anthony Hermus, are a tour de force, with their full-throated playing. At times, it seems the notes will break away from the score, by the tremendous power of the piece, only for the players to be reined in by the skill of the conductor. The sense of dread and urgency is building up. 

Scarpia tells Tosca that if she has sex with him he will release her lover. He will stage a mock execution and then they can steal away. He is a black spider and she stumbles into his web. He is aroused by his own sadism; “Your tears fired my senses”. Hatred fans his longing: “How you loathe me!” He purports to adore Tosca, but he wants to have power over her and possess her. The tension is unbearable as he stalks her around the stage. He starts to rape her and she stabs him. For me, it is an uplifting moment; we have our redemption! She stands over his body: “Look at me! I am Tosca!” She is all power! She falls spent on the ground and sings ‘Vissi d’arte’. I feel overwhelmed by its beauty. Some notes echo like sobs. She is a high soprano, but her voice has a warm, rich tone, which is perfect for this aria. She is restrained, not overdoing the drama, and slowly builds. At fortissimo, her ragged feelings explode. Maria Callas’ ‘Vissi d’arte’ is a classic, with its visceral rawness, but Giselle Allen certainly excels in her wonderful, nuanced rendition.

At this moment, when she is prostrate on the ground, heart broken, the audience claps. Why? I do not like applause breaks; they affect the drama and mood. A few minutes of charged silence would have worked for me.

Tosca goes to Cavaradossi to reassure him. They sing a beautiful duet, in unison. It is unaccompanied so their emotions are laid bare. He sings: “The beauty of all things shall shine because of you!”. She leaves him until dawn. He is desolate in his prison and sings the renowned aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’. The starry sky is a triumph for the designers. He sings “Never have I loved life so much!” My eyes fill with tears once again. The Opera North Chorus are an astonishing wall of sound, their crescendo raising the roof.

At dawn, Cavaradossi is shot. Tosca is distraught as she sees that he is dead. A gang of black-clad masked men pursue her; they have an ominous, fascistic air. Tosca climbs to the battlements of the castle, raises her arms and lets herself fall backwards, her body beautiful against the dark. She escapes execution and we are not sorry. She chooses to leave a world which she cannot endure without the love of her life.

This Edward Dick production is relevant today, as it deals with political corruption and the rise of the far-right, which is a worrying trend today. Also, we witness sexual exploitation, as in current scandals about abuse of power.

This was a superlative performance of Puccini’s Tosca by Opera North. I was transfixed by the telling. The gifted cast and creatives used their artistry and understanding of human frailty and passion, and gave us an unforgettable opera. I stood with all the rest, applauding for several minutes, weeping unrestrainedly. Sublime!

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