Opera North’s new production on this visit is of Puccini’s Tosca – an opera they last performed 10 years ago. It comes to The Lowry on 14th and 16th November, and I went to size it up last week in Leeds.
Their last version was not a pretty sight. The director was making comparisons with the Italy of Berlusconi and Forza Italia, and the nasty, lustful police chief Baron Scarpia was as revolting as they get (which, let’s face it, he is meant to be).
This time we’re in the present day again, and, if you look at the programme book, it’s Donald Trump we’re supposed to see as his parallel, as director Edward Dick presents the story. You can understand where that’s coming from: the heroine, 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’s 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 …
So it’s about a man whose lust for women is as big as his lust for power, both cloaked in a pose of religious piety. They didn’t give Scarpia a blond wig with a comb-over (alternatively, if they’d foreseen now-current events, they might have made him up to look like Brett Cavanaugh, and we could all think of other cases in point). He’s actually a villain right out of Victorian melodrama – and the play Tosca is based on was a Victorian melodrama to begin with anyway.
But it’s also about a brave and passionate woman: the operatic role for a great dramatic soprano, in many ways. Here Opera North, and Mr Dick, have struck gold this time. Giselle Allen is an amazing interpreter of the role. She acts it like a real opera singer, not flouncing around as a ‘diva’ but an extrovert and a performer, still insecure beneath it; so her jealousy is a weakness and part of her personality, not an exaggeration. I liked the way she treats Scarpia at the start of the second Act, beginning with cautious politeness though she’s repulsed by him, too.
Rafael Rojas is appealing and in excellent tenor voice as Cavaradossi. He doesn’t have to do much but act the noble hero and sing like one too, and he does precisely that.
Scarpia, though, is a challenge: too nasty and you have a pantomime villain, too realistic and we feel short-changed. Robert Hayward, I think, was looking to make him a man we might really encounter some time, not a monster. This rather goes against the crashing, doom-laden chords that accompany his first appearance, and I’m sure Puccini meant that to be the incarnation of a bogey-man – it isn’t quite that here. Later you wonder whether he’s motivated by power, lust or maybe even sexual impotence … interesting but possibly a bit too psycho-analytical.
There’s a nice touch when, in the middle of Tosca’s great solo aria, Vissi d’arte, he starts filming her passionate outburst on his phone. The piece does stop the entire action, quite unrealistically, after all – whether people decide to applaud after it or not (and it’s a good sign if they don’t – we’re not here for a recital of Maria Callas’s greatest hits).
The conductor is Antony Hermus, a young Dutch musician who I think is quite a find (he won’t be on the podium on 14th November, but he will on the 16th). He has an excellent rapport with Opera North’s orchestra and also some strikingly fresh ways of approaching the phrasing and sound qualities of what can be a hackneyed-sounding score. If Opera North are still looking for their next music director, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s high up on the score-sheet.