ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

NI Opera, 2011 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Lee Bisset, Jesús León, Paul Carey Jones, Brendan Collins, John Molloy, Andrew Rees | Derry-Londonderry, 1st April 2011

Playing for only three performances in Derry rather than what would seem to be the more natural venue of the Grand Opera House in Belfast, a production of Puccini’s Tosca would seem to be a relatively low-key event and a fairly conventional popular opera for the inaugural production of the newly-formed Northern Ireland Opera. The choices made in the location and the opera itself however proved to be far from just going for a safe choice, the timing of the event coinciding with a security alert on the day that I attended adding a further unpredictable element to the proceedings that made it an occasion that was in reality something rather special.

Some of the most remarkable elements were however indeed through the choice of NI Opera to stage the production of Tosca not in the usual expected venue. Even leaving Belfast aside, the newly built Millennium Forum would have seemed to be the venue of choice for the production’s Derry opening, but instead the company chose to stage each of the three acts of Tosca in three different locations in the city – all within short walking distance of each other, each of them approximating the Rome locations specified in the libretto. The choice of locations proved to be inspired – St Columb’s Cathedral standing in for Act 1’s Sant’ Andrea della Valle church, the fine surroundings of the City Hall The Guildhall turned into the Farnese Palace for Act 2, with the slightly more conventional theatre choice of St Columb’s Hall used for Act 3’s Castel Sant’ Angelo nonetheless having an appropriate position perched on the ancient walls of the city, where the audience were led between acts, following the orchestra carrying their instruments, for the opera’s dramatic finale.

In the event, for the matinee performance on the Friday 1st April 2011, it turned out that Act 1 had to be hastily moved from the Cathedral to the Guildhall due to a security alert that saw the bomb squad arrive with sirens blaring through the narrow streets leading up to the Diamond to deal with a suspect device left in the area of St Columb’s.  The improvised rearrangement of one of the chambers of the Guildhall to represent a church in the first Act was however effectively achieved, and even if they had to make do with a plastic bucket for a font, the natural light through the beautiful stained-glass windows helped create the right kind of environment for the unfolding of Act 1’s religious and political themes. It didn’t need an unexpected bomb alert elsewhere in the city either for the audience to connect with the relevance of the themes in Tosca to the population of Derry-stroke-Londonderry (the hyphenated split in the City’s commonly referred to designation reflecting the strong nationalist/unionist divide in the region). Apart from some non-specific modern dress elements and the visceral blood-stained white tiles of an all too familiar-looking clinical police interrogation room in Act 3, the opera wasn’t updated to make a specific link to the political and religious troubles in Northern Ireland. It would have been contentious - not to say a problematic distortion of reality - to draw a direct parallel between a rebel prisoner on the run being hunted down by brutal security forces under the control of a religious bigot and make it work, but the character types, the attitudes and the actions expressed were still those that a local audience of all ages could certainly have identified with, even if those elements were only able to be hinted at, and even if the connection wasn’t consciously made in the minds of the audience.

This then was the strength of NI Opera’s Tosca – and I’m sure that the relevance of the content of the opera didn’t go unnoticed when it and the location were chosen by the company – but it’s a characteristic of Puccini’s opera and a quality of opera in general that if its themes and their treatment have an authentic ring of truth then an audience cannot help but strongly identify with them. And it’s not just the political and religious content of the storyline – which is somewhat heightened by the compressed structure of the opera – but more importantly the underlying human element of ordinary people trying to conduct ordinary lives while caught up in a political nightmare. I find it hard to relate the romanticism in Puccini’s work elsewhere to the versimo movement that he was nominally a part of, but Tosca is one opera at least that plays to the school of hard-knocks and brutal realism. That aspect was thoroughly and bloodily explored in the wonderful staging, judging by the reaction of the public to each of the acts, but in particular to the hugely dramatic conclusion where the audience were on their feet and roaring their approval even before the curtain fell and while Nicholas Chalmers was still wringing out the opera’s final powerful closing chords from the orchestra.

The Guildhall and St Columb’s Hall locations were certainly instrumental in achieving this effect, bringing the audience close to the performance and allowing them to relate to it in a way one could never get from any opera house in the world – making the richness of the orchestration and the singing even more apparent. We were fortunate in this respect to have Lee Bisset (for the Friday matinee performance only – I didn’t get the chance to hear the main Tosca Giselle Allen who sang the two evening performances) as leading soprano for the occasion, delivering a commanding and sometimes dramatically strident Tosca when viewed close-up like this, but whose powerful voice nonetheless carried all the emotional cry-to-whisper dynamic of a character whose range encompasses lightning switches between jealousy over the model for Cavaradossi’s painting, to love and compassion for the torture he endures while incarcerated, right through to murderous vengeance on the man who would abuse her. Bisset not only made the full force of those verismo emotions felt, she made them credible.

Any attempt to give subtlety or complexity to the character of Baron Scarpia as Chief of Police would have been out of place here, and Paul Carey Jones accordingly played him as a villain through and through, at the same time relating the singing fully to the tone of his character as it is outlined in Puccini’s brooding and evocative score, most evident in the self-important arrogance of political power conflated with religious authority conveyed in the Te Deum. In the location of the Derry/Londonderry Guildhall (standing in for the closed-off Cathedral of course), this Act 1 conclusion needed no additional overemphasis. The only weak element of the singing I felt was Mexican tenor Jesús León as Cavaradossi, whose accented delivery was rather thin and unmusical, closer to speaking his role than singing it or fully feeling it – though I’m sure singing it in English didn’t help. Perhaps however the Guildhall surroundings and the comparatively more powerful singing of his fellow-cast members in the earlier Acts also rather overshadowed his voice (as does my memory of Plácido Domingo in the role). This would seem to be borne out by a much more convincing performance on an actual stage and with the acoustics of St Columb’s Hall behind him, since his E lucevan le stelle there was excellent at conveying the range of emotions his character is going through at such a pivotal moment in his life.

In the short period of their existence since their formation at the end of 2010, Northern Ireland Opera have nonetheless provided me personally with a number of unique opera experiences. Their chamber orchestra production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium at the Mill Theatre in Newtownabbey (another uncommon place for an opera production) introduced the province – or at least a small local audience – to an unfamiliar work from a modern composer in a wonderfully intimate environment. Tosca in Derry was even more ambitious in doing something different from the norm, clearly reaching out to bring opera into the provinces and expand the audience (with an affordable highest ticket price at only £15 – another welcome experience) through making the staging a unique and special event that cannot be replicated anywhere else. (Tosca has of course been staged for film and television in its original Rome locations, but it takes on another dimension when performed this way in Northern Ireland). It was a pity that the very location should prove problematic on this one occasion, and I regret not having the opportunity of seeing Act 1 of Tosca in St Columb’s Cathedral, but while NI Opera clearly have great ambitions for what opera can bring to the people of the province, there are clearly some objectives that just may be a little bit beyond their range of influence.