Tosca by Giacomo Puccini at The London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, WC2. Reviewed by John O’Brien
The new season of opera at the Coliseum opens with a full blooded Tosca. Tosca (1900) was Giacomo Puccini’s (born 1858- died aged 66 in 1924 ) second great opera sandwiched between La Boheme (1900) and Madam Butterfly (1904). This production, directed by Christof Loy, was first staged by the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. It has the trademark Scandi noir features: sex, suicide, murder, torture, blackmail, sadism and violence. It adds up to a Grand Guignol of horrors that is part Duchess of Malfi and part Dawn of the Dead. As if this were not enough there is the hypnotic magic of Puccini’s music, the poetry of the libretto, the dazzling sets, sumptuous costumes, tremendous acting and singing of sublime wonder. The result is a work of art that delights on so many levels. For sheer entertainment there is nothing like Puccini.
Tosca is Floria Tosca a celebrated singer. She is the heart of the opera. The plot is a classic eternal triangle, or to be precise two eternal triangles. In the first, Tosca is jealous that her lover Mario loves another. This weakness gives the opera’s villain, Scarpia, the chance to ensnare Tosca in a second eternal triangle: himself, Mario and Tosca. Here the opera mirrors Shakespeare’s Othello, with Scarpia as the manipulator Iago and Tosca as Othello. Scarpia makes, as it were, an “indecent proposal” type offer to Tosca in exchange for saving her lover Mario. Tosca refuses and stabs Scarpia to death. Believing that Scarpia has agreed to free Mario after a mock execution, Tosca is devastate when the execution is all too real, that Scarpia has betrayed her, Mario is dead. A murderer on the run, Tosca decides to take her life by jumping off the castle walls.
Sinead Campbell-Wallace makes for a truly epic Tosca. She acts and sings with overwhelming command of the stage. She shows the many sides of Tosca. For example in Act 1 we see her knowingly playful and selfish side. She teases Mario. He wants to kiss her – “but not in front of the Madonna” she replies. However later in the same act, she wants to kiss him, “what about the Madonna?” he asks, “Oh the Madonna is very forgiving” is her winning reply. So she knows her worth and knows how to get what she wants. But then Scarpia notices her jealousy and plays on that. In the blink of an eye, Tosca becomes harsh and vindictive. She wants Mario watched. She wants her rival erased. Paint her eyes brown not blue she demands of Mario.
In the second act her compassion for Mario compels her to agree to Scarpia’s indecent proposal. But seeing a knife on the table she becomes Lady Macbeth or better still, Macbeth himself and stabs Scarpia to death, with the chilling words “Tosca’s Kiss.”
The denouement in Act 3 shows yet another side of her many contradictions. Her naivety now comes to the fore. She foolishly believes that she has a letter from Scarpia which both allows Mario to live and for them to have free passage out of the country. She is wrong on both counts. Scarpia wanted to have her and wrote the letter. It had no value as he was lying. Finally we see Tosca’s illusions about the power of art. She tells Mario its only a fake execution. The important thing is to fall with style. She believes that Mario is like a singer on the stage. She learns the hard way that real life is not the stage. Singers like her and painters like Mario are no match for firing squads. As the poet Auden put it: “Art makes nothing happen.” Politics makes things happen not art.
Tosca’s lover – the painter Mario Cavaradossi is superbly acted and sung by the super charismatic Adam Smith. He really comes into his own in the castle dungeon scene as he sings a final farewell to life and love. It’s one of the most moving arias Puccini ever wrote and Smith sings it perfectly. Noel Bouley was unable to sing the part of the villain Scarpia, but he acted it whilst Roland Wood sang from the side. That division of labour worked well and brought home just how talented opera singers are. Bouley captures Scarpia’s sadism and cruelty. Most disturbingly, the idea that Tosca’s resistance to him turned him on even more.
The designer Christian Schmidt has underlined these sadistic elements with some very effective sets and props. Scarpia as a Putin type is obvious from the enormous table he sits at. The colour contrast between black and red is repeated in costumes, curtains and backdrops. The firing squad scene is a brilliant homage to Goya’s masterpiece The Third of May 1808.