Declaring you’re spending the night at the opera can raise a few bemused eyebrows. ‘That’s very elegant’, ‘I didn’t think that was a thing people actually did’, were amongst my smiling responses. Opera’s reputation precedes it, but if anyone needs convincing that this is an art form that can resonate with any beating heart, I recommend taking a seat at Puccini’s Tosca, currently being staged at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre.
Based on Victorien Sardou’s 1887 play La Tosca, Giacomo Puccini’s Italian opera follows the story of singer Floria Tosca and her lover, artist Mario Cavaradossi, at a time of political unrest in Italy. After Cavaradossi is arrested for offering aid to an escaped political prisoner, the corrupt and lecherous Chief of Police Baron Scarpia offers Tosca a choice: surrender to his desire or accept the execution of her lover.
The plot promises tension, but it’s when the first trembling notes of the orchestra are heard that the power of Puccini’s score to pierce souls is felt. Anthony Besch’s production of Tosca, first staged in 1980 and now somewhat of a modern classic, is revived here by Scottish Opera under direction of Jonathan Cocker. Besch’s reimagining of Puccini’s opera, set in 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars, in the Fascist setting of World War II Rome, is brought to life vividly on stage. From the monolithic architecture of the Catholic Church in Act I to the marrying of religious iconography with sinister officials in trench coats, the gaudy, chauvinistic ideology of Fascist Italy is evoked without the need for flags bearing fasces to flap in the background.
The effect is chilling. The brutality of the setting jars affectively with the soaring beauty of the operatic voices and their orchestral accompaniment. Conducted by Stuart Stratford, the orchestra sets the tone in every scene, from the pugnacity of the ensemble of Fascists and the Catholic congregation in Act I’s thunderous climax to the eerie stillness of Act III’s opening at the gallows. The orchestra takes the audience through the story - every twist, every turn, every emotion -allowing us to feel what’s happening so what is truly important is never lost in translation.
Then there are the voices. Cavaradossi, played by Gwyn Hughes Jones, moves from comedic commentary sung with an exasperated sigh when attempting to allay Tosca’s misplaced jealousy, to impassioned remembrance as he contemplates losing her. As the tenor calls out, it is moving to hear how a voice so radiant can nevertheless ache. Roland Wood as Scarpia, both in commanding stage presence and his bold, baritone vocal aptly conveys the baseness of his character. The voice that shoots straight for the soul, however, is Natalya Romaniw in the role of Tosca. An exquisite performance from start to finish, her voice resounds with the agony and strength of the woman she plays. In ‘Vissi d’arte’, one of the opera’s acclaimed arias, Tosca’s pained address to God held the audience’s breath, before provoking the production’s only round of applause mid-scene.
It is these voices of course that are the light of opera. Listening to their crystal sharpness, their tantalising urgency, their booming fury, it’s hard not to feel as though there is something transcendent at play. It’s not simply that they are beautiful, that it is incredible to hear the human voice reach such heights and such depths, it is the feeling, released from deeper within the performer and the music, that so captivates. In such a beguiling opera as Tosca, staged to perfection by Scottish Opera, it speaks to the human empathy and loneliness that is surely accessible to all.
Scottish Opera: Tosca runs at the Festival Theatre on the 14, 17, 21 and 23 November 2019.