Sunday, October 23, 2016

TOSCA at London Coliseum - lived for love, lived for art...

Our experiment in seeing new art forms in 2015 resulted in the success of ballet as a new favourite - 14 visits to see the Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi at Covent Garden testify to this.

But opera did not fare as well - the awful Welsh National Opera production PETER PAN seemingly put paid to that.  But this year we saw Richard Eyre's production of LA TRAVIATA at Covent Garden and that whetted our appetite for the classic Big Opera.  Last week we saw English National Opera's TOSCA at the London Coliseum... and I think the operatic penny might have dropped!

This is a revival of the 2010 production by Catherine Malfitano, herself an acclaimed Tosca during her singing career, and Donna Stirrup has directed it with a steady hand, at all times keeping the action focused on the three main characters.  In this she is aided by the clever sets of Frank Philipp Schlossman, Gideon Davey's costume design and David Martin Jacques' lighting, here re-created by Kevin Sleep.

I had a vague idea of the plot, knew that it contained the magnificent aria 'Vissi d'arte' and that it had a spectacular end so the journey to that famous climax was totally new for me - and what a wonderful dramatic story Puccini and his librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica fashioned from the original play by Victorien Sardou.

1800:  With Rome in turmoil after the collapse of the French-backed republic, the jealous opera diva Floria Tosca is duped by the nasty chief of police Scarpia into thinking that her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, has vanished with another woman when in reality he knows Mario is hiding an escaped republican prisoner.  The police follow her to Cavaradossi's hiding place and arrest him.  Cavaradossi is tortured in the room next to where Scarpia has had Tosca brought and to stop her lover's ordeal she reveals to Scarpia where the escaped prisoner is hiding.  Mario is due to be shot at dawn but Scarpia tells Tosca - who he is obsessed with - that he will arrange a 'fake' shooting if she sleeps with him. 

They hear that the escaped prisoner has killed himself, Tosca knows Scarpia will want revenge so agrees to his bargain but on the proviso that he sign a safe-conduct pass for her and Cavaradossi.  After Scarpia has signed the document, she stabs him to death singing "This is the kiss of Tosca".  On the roof of the Castel Sant'Angelo, Cavaradossi reflects that despite her actions, his love for Tosca was the greatest thing in his life.  She appears and tells him she has killed Scarpia, that the execution squad will fire blanks and coaches him on how to 'play dead' then they can escape. The soldiers appear and Tosca exults in their triumph of Scarpia.  However his is the final triumph as Mario is shot dead. She hears the clamour at the discovery of Scarpia's corpse and rather than be arrested, she throws herself from the parapet shouting "Scarpia... in the eyes of God".

The dramatic momentum of the plot in this production drives towards the famous climax with a powerful relentlessness, it's only on reflection that you realize that the action takes place within less than 24 hours.  What I also loved about the production was that, unlike most revivals, Malfitano did not set decide to impose a jarring 'concept' on the production - setting it in the Swinging 60s or in Dublin in 1916 (yes Globe Theatre I am looking at you...) but vaguely in period and allowing nothing to distract from the music and the performances.

Tosca was brought to magnificent life by American soprano Keri Alkema who was in splendid voice and certainly convinced as the imperious diva whose life would never be compromised.  Cavaradossi was well sung by Gwyn Hughes Jones especially his third act aria "And the stars shone" while Craig Colclough's Scarpia (or 'Shitface' as Owen re-christened him) was rewarded with ultimate accolade at his curtain call, yes he was loudly booed like a panto villain.

TOSCA has stayed with me since seeing it, in particular the sheer magnificence of Puccini's score, and I listened to a full recording while writing this to get into the mood.

She lived for art, she lived for love and she is one of the great tragic heroines of the stage.

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