Grand Opera House, Belfast
The Belfast premiere of Puccini’s Tosca was given by the Moody-Manners Opera Company, in English, at the Royal Hippodrome (neighbour to the Grand Opera House) in February 1910. It had given Tosca “for the first time in Dublin” at the Theatre Royal six weeks earlier.
In 2011 Northern Ireland Opera chose Tosca, in English, for its inaugural season, presenting it in Derry as an imaginative three-venue site-specific production, its three acts travelling from St Columb’s Cathedral via the Guildhall to St Columb’s Hall.
For 2023, NI Opera’s new production, in Italian with surtitles, conveys the opera’s emotional journey within unadorned scaffolded side walls. It is “directed and conceptualised” by the company’s artistic director, Cameron Menzies.
For some, me included, “conceptualised” sets off alarm bells, though a new concept can indeed breathe fresh life into stale formulae. “Conceptually the production looks at the old and the new worlds kind of crashing into each other,” Menzies has said. “We have set our production very much wedged in between an old romantic civilisation and that of a more industrial future.”
Niall McKeever’s sets, with atmospheric lighting by Ciaran Bagnall, deliver the industrial future with a different platform in each act: one on which Cavaradossi can paint what appears to be the church’s dome on its side, one for Scarpia’s meal on a contemporary table and chairs in act two, and one for the gallows in act three (looking rather like an MRI scanner thanks to the return of the sideways dome). Puccini, writing in 1899, set his opera a century earlier, in Napoleonic Rome, and that “old romantic civilisation” is successfully captured in the wide range of Gillian Lennox’s costume designs.
The Brazilian conductor Eduardo Strausser, working with the Ulster Orchestra, shapes the music with skill. From a seat in the circle, there is real clarity of sound, and the orchestra never overpowers the singers, even when at full tilt in this gripping and brutal drama.
One of Tosca’s great moments is the climactic Te Deum that ends the first act. Sung by the NI Opera Chorus and members of the Belfast Philharmonic choir and children’s chorus, it creates a truly thrilling and chilling effect. In act two the chorus is heard again, though offstage, singing a cantata as Scarpia is interrogating Cavaradossi onstage.
The opera is not just about Tosca, the “celebrated singer”. More importantly, it’s about two key relationships: between Tosca and the painter Cavaradossi, and between Tosca and the chief of police, Scarpia.
Ireland’s star diva in 1909-10 had been Fanny Moody. For NI Opera it is the Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan, living up to the diva label. Her range from top to bottom is tremendous, but more dynamic contrast would be beneficial, as in her act-two Vissi d’Arte, which doesn’t quite settle. I long for less singing to the gallery and more onstage, sideways interaction, particularly between her and the tenor Peter Auty’s Cavaradossi. He has lovely moments, as in his act-three farewell aria, E Lucevan le Stelle, but his top register sounds a little tired throughout the evening.
The Irish baritone Brendan Collins, as the despicable Scarpia, is the most consistent, with fine vocal production and a convincingly strong dramatic sense.
Matthew Durkan, as the fugitive Angelotti, and Niall Anderson, as Sacristan, are both richly characterful.
Continues at Grand Opera House, Belfast, on Tuesday, September 12th, Thursday, September 14th, and Saturday, September 16th