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Giacoso/Illica and Puccini, after Sardou

Opera North

The Lowry, Salford

March 9 and 11, 2023: 2 hrs 40 mins

(also Theatre Royal Nottingham March 16 & 18; Theatre Royal Newcastle March 23 & 25; Hull New Theatre March 30 & April 1)

Robert Hayward as Scarpia and the Chorus of Opera North in Opera North’s production of Puccini’s Tosca cr James Glossop
Robert Hayward as Scarpia and the Chorus of Opera North in Opera North’s production of Puccini’s Tosca. All pics: James Glossop

La Tosca was a play about an opera singer before it was an opera about an opera singer. Sarah Bernhardt made the title role her own and toured it through Europe (including Manchester).

Puccini’s Tosca, too, has much of the whiff of a Victorian thriller about it. There’s a beautiful, talented and resourceful heroine, a really virtuous hero and a dastardly villain. And that’s the level on which the opera is sometimes played.

But Edward Dick’s production for Opera North, now on its second run (it was new, and came to Salford after Leeds in 2018), rams it right into the present day. That’s nothing new, either: opera directors often try this sort of thing. But this one works far better than most, bringing out all the sub-text about how women are treated by men with power, how piety can be a cloak for lust, how gaining political popularity can exploit the worst in human nature, and how decent people can still be true to each other. And, of course, Puccini’s music helps.

Floria Tosca is an opera singer in love with a painter (Mario Cavaradossi) whose sympathy for an escaped political prisoner puts him on the wrong side of the powers that be – in particular of Scarpia, who tortures Cavaradossi physically and Tosca mentally until she cracks. She yields to his lustful will until she thinks she has secured her lover’s freedom, then stabs the villain to death after he says there’ll be nothing but a mock execution for Cavaradossi the next morning. Perhaps I shouldn’t give away what happens next. On the other hand, this is hardly news to most...

So the story is all about three people, and in this revival two of them are the same two big stars Opera North brought us in 2018. Giselle Allen (Floria Tosca) is, if anything, in even finer voice than she was then, with searingly powerful delivery and a clear insight into the insecurity, and courage, of an opera diva. Robert Hayward again shows Scarpia to be a creature of his own sexual appetite, a voyeur who slavers over a laptop screen, and films Tosca’s great emotional outburst, in Vissi d’arte, on his mobile phone. His vocal artistry has never been better than in this role. It’s good that each of them has returned to the production this time, and they’ll leave big shoes to fill for anyone who might finally take their places in what could become a staple for Opera North, as did La Bohème in earlier years.

The newcomer to the three is Mykhailo Malafii, a Ukrainian tenor with all the Italianate histrionics and power to fit his playing of Cavaradossi, which may be a touch one-dimensional but meshes into the drama well enough.

Among the lesser roles the rich tone of Callum Thorpe, as Angelotti, is a pleasure to hear.

In 2018 the production was also the occasion for the appearance of Antony Hermus as conductor with Opera North – he soon afterwards became their principal guest conductor, after doing a revelatory job with the score of Tosca. This time it’s the company’s music director, Garry Walker, and his treatment of it, and the playing from the pit, are no less stunning. It all adds up to a first-class achievement.

More info and tickets here


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