The first thing to say about Northern Ireland Opera’s exciting new production of Tosca is that its heroine is played by a genuine star. Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan reinvents the famous despairing aria Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore and her voice moves from an almost harsh version of bel canto to the beauty we know and expect.
It’s a modern instrument, in short, correctly described as “steely” by one critic which suits director Cameron Menzies’s take on Puccini’s great opera to a T, or top C. For this production looks forward to a modern age psychologically, as well as backward as the composer conjures up the politically riven Rome of the 1800s.
There’s a modern sense of Tosca’s intensity and a Felliniesque portrayal of the Catholic Church with a groovy Sacristan (Niall Anderson) and ultimately failing message.
It's a critical given that if you talk about the set, a production isn’t that good, but this could not be less the case here. Niall McKeever‘s sets are guides and pointers to what’s going on and how Tosca is being made new before our ears and eyes.
We start with a massive damaged church bell with Tosca’s portrait inside dominating the stage and Cavaradossi’s chaotic abode stage left. Within this, Peter Auty’s lovelorn artist sets out the story so far and we then encounter Floria Tosca herself. She’s compelling from the start, religious yet passionate in a floating gown.
She tells him to make the eyes darker, like hers, in his portrait of Mary Magdalene. There isn’t that much spark between the two and Auty was drafted in late, so we possibly may not be getting the full interaction. Yet Auty really steps up to the mark when singing solo in his pre-execution scene in the very touching aria, E lucevan le stelle.
Interestingly, one felt there were sparks when Tosca met the villainous Baron Scarpia, head of the secret police, sung and acted with brio by Brendan Collins. He was nasty, charismatic and got the import of his arias very well.
Both he and Kasyan excelled in act two when around a very high scaffolded dining room, they perform a physical routine of almost animal display, with him attempting to seduce his prize, her rejecting him but still bargaining for the life of her lover. It’s tough, well choreographed amid the sheer scale of this set, which suggests the size of Scarpia’s ego and hints at his fate.
After Tosca has despatched her seductive nemesis, rather enthusiastically, she dignifies his corpse with candles and bestows her cross on the body. This was something Sarah Bernhardt did in the production of Sardou’s play that inspired Puccini to borrow the story and might have been more visible.
Musically, the evening was a triumph with members of the Ulster Orchestra playing magnificently under the baton of Eduardo Strausser. The repeated leitmotifs produced melancholy when required, but the lyric orchestral passages came across well too.
This is a showy opera, with near Hollywood moments such as the massed choristers singing the Te Deum in Act 1 against Scarpia’s sinister aria of conquest, Va, Tosca.
The ending, set against a pared down, urban setting, worked well. It’s a short act with crucial detail as we learn in totally chilling passages of Tosca’s crime and the way Mario weaves this into a love declaration.
His phrases about her hands cradling babies and arranging roses contrasted with Tosca’s demeanour. This is, after all, a woman metaphorically and literally on the edge.
Ciaran Bagnall’s clever lighting sees the diva sent from near into total darkness. Her end is performed almost deftly here and the finale definitely belongs to Tosca. It’s a moving evening, with real emotion; see it if you can.
Tosca by NI Opera is running at the Grand Opera House, Belfast on September 12, 14 and 16. Goh.co.uk