It’s not the threat of Napoleonic invasion of Italy in 1800; instead it’s the height of World War 2 in 1944. Becca Marriott’s reimagined libretto for Tosca gives this opera the update it has needed for decades. Giacomo Puccini originally composed one of the most well-respected pieces in any classical repertoire almost 100 years after the events in Victorien Sardou’s original play. Marriott has been a bit quicker to repeat the trend – but this pared back version of Tosca, with just four singers and three musicians, is no less fierce, intense or passionate. Adam Spreadbury-Maher lends his Olivier Award-winning name to the last studio opera in the King’s Head Theatre’s current space and hits a home run – Tosca is an innovative, imaginative combination of intimate and expansive studio opera, two hours of magic to witness.
The beaches at Normandy are being stormed, but Paris remains under Nazi occupation. Tosca (Becca Marriott) is safe for the moment, her voice too precious to the lecherous official Scarpia (Michael Georgiou). But she is also in love with painter Cavaradossi (Roger Paterson), a rebel of the resistance. When he smuggles escaped prisoner Jacob Cohen (Thomas Isherwood), the only character altered from the original libretto as a way of keeping in line with the updated story, out of France, his life becomes forfeit. All this from an opera than ran over three hours when it was last performed by the English National Opera, now reduced to 100 minutes and missing none of the magnetic energy or electricity.
Panaretos Kyriatzidis has condensed the expansive, typically Romantic orchestration into just three instruments. But we don’t lack for richness in these textures, a challenging set of parts that each musician interprets expertly. This soundscape is a heady combination of thick, complex chords, almost Wagnerian in their denseness, yet contrasted with light, soaring, melodic arias that ascend into the rafters with angelic beauty.
The latter is mainly due to Marriott’s proficiency as the soprano and only female on the cast. Marriott effortlessly conveys the dichotomy that is Tosca – a powerful woman of poise & stature, reduced to begging & pleading for the man she loves in front of the unflinching might of Nazi Germany. Except Tosca is not one to go down without a fight. Marriott calls upon tremendous inner strength to deliver a challenging soprano score in just the same way that Tosca draws from within to rally against Scarpia until her last breath. Georgiou’s portrayal of this villain is deeply sinister in its melody, a resonating baritone that reaches deep into your gut and captures your attention.
But the vocal masterclass here is given by Paterson’s Cavaradossi. Paterson’s tone is rich and warm, full of loving tenderness without compromising in power or timbre. He pitches the perfect amount of vibrato to add depth to his vocal and still keep control of the melody. It’s an assured performance that is often only found after many years of practice or, in very rare cases, by individuals with a purely natural talent for mastering the profundities of the discipline. Paterson is a very special singer indeed.
Not to be outdone by his performers, Spreadbury-Maher’s direction shines through as a highlight in this particular version of Tosca too. There are a number of clunky moments in the acting that risk throwing the production off-track, but these are easily overlooked in favour of Spreadbury-Maher’s vision that conveys a set of addictively complex, emotional landscapes. The forlorn lovers; a jealous and envious villain; scenes of lust and passion contrasted with torture and pain – this is a Tosca with a range of seductive moments that draw in the audience and magnify the impact of the updated storyline and soaring musical score.
In the end, as with all great love stories, Tosca ends in tragedy. But it also ends with defiance, integrity and with its lead character retaining the ultimate control. This version has exactly these same qualities – Marriott’s updated libretto defies tradition with its head held high; the condensed orchestration and script keep the integrity of the piece intact; the lead character, as well as the other three, give controlled performances. Spreadbury-Maher has a talent for giving us opera in a small space but with all its grandeur and power and this is no exception.
Follow the link to an interview with director, Adam Spreabury-Maher.