After a mini lockdown due to my recovering from a knee replacement operation and the lack of new shows opening since Christmas, it was great to get back to the beautiful Grand Theatre for a classic opera, albeit in modern dress – both the opera and me. As usual, the work covered love, betrayal, murder, suicide, jealousy, political intrigue, sex (attempted) and misogyny, so just another Saturday night in Leeds then.

Despite the introduction, this is a very enjoyable opera with the action split into three acts which are separated by two intervals so the two hours, forty minutes is divided into manageable chunks. This allowed for the set to be radically changed for each act, although there was one constant, a mural which was being painted and installed by Mario Cavaradossi, in the dome of a chapel, and which plays a major part in the stories which unfold.

Cesare Angelotti – Callum Thorpe, and Mario Cavaradossi – Mykhailo Malafii

The action begins as Cavaradossi, sung by Mykhailo Malafii is working late at night putting the finishing touches to the eyes of the woman whose face will adorn the ceiling, when he senses an intruder, who turns out to be Cesare Angelotti (Callum Thorpe), a political prisoner, and friend of the artist, who has just escaped from jail and is seeking refuge. Cavaradossi agrees to help him by letting him stay in a secret well at his villa. The two men are interrupted by the arrival of Floria Tosca, a singer and the lover of Cavaradossi, so Angelotti hides until she leaves. When Tosca sees the eyes of the woman in the painting, who is supposed to be Mary Magdalene, she recognises the model and accuses the artist of having an affair. He assures her that he is not and only used the woman as a muse as she spends a lot of time in the church praying and so it gives him time to paint her. Tosca is happy with this story and leaves after arranging to meet up later that evening, at which time Angelotti, whose sister the mystery woman is, reappears and the two men go to the hiding place.

Cavaradossi and Tosca – Giselle Allen with the final piece of the mural.

When they are gone news is broken by the sacristan, sung by Matthew Stiff, that there has been a victory for the current regime and there will be a celebration that night when Tosca will sing a cantata.

Obviously things don’t go to plan and the festivities are gatecrashed by Baron Scarpia (Robert Hayward), the Chief of Police and his henchmen who believe that the painter is in league with Angelotti and he is hiding in the church. He finds evidence linking the two men and a fan belonging to Ancelotti’s sister, which was part of a parcel of women’s clothing she had given her brother to use as a disguise.

The victory celebration

To cut a long story short(ish) Scarpia, who is a bit of a swine and is determined to bed Tosca, not through any sense of love or commitment, just as another notch on his bedpost, persuades her that her lover is indeed having an affair with the model and wouldn’t she like a bit of revenge sex with him. When that doesn’t work, he opens his laptop and shows her the images of Cavaradossi being tortured saying that he will have it stopped if she agrees to spend the night with him. She does so but Scarpia says that he can’t be seen to release her lover scot-free so they will perform a mock execution where the guns will contain blanks. He also provides her with a passport out of Rome so she and Cavaradossi can relocate.

Baron Scarpia – Robert Hayward, in full seduction mode.

After obtaining the assurance and the papers, she approaches Scarpia on the bed but instead of keeping to her side of the bargain, she stabs him through the heart. She then flees to the execution yard where the firing squad line up for the mock punishment and tells her lover to be convincing when he hears the shots. You don’t need me to tell you that she has been double-crossed and the bullets are real so Cavaradossi is dead. While she is crying over the body, Scarpia’s men burst in and try to arrest Tosca but she climbs to the top of the chapel dome and throws herself from it. The end, in many ways.

Tosca about to meet her end on the chapel roof

The more observant of you will notice that I haven’t named the singer who took the part of Tosca. The reason for this is that Giselle Allen, for that is who it was, deserves more than just a passing mention. I am not saying that the other singers were not great, they were, but Ms Allen was a perfect fit in this role. She interpreted the various facets of Tosca’s character superbly, the sexy singer, the feisty woman who stands for no nonsense, the calculating vamp playing her seducer off to get her wishes, and the vulnerable side illustrated by her jealousy. Not only that but she had an amazing voice, which could go from a whisper to shattering glass in a trice. When it came to her demise from the roof of the chapel it was the best executed fall since Delboy dropped through the open bar flap in Only Fools and Horses.

It was refreshing to see that the female lead was just as devious and violent as the male ones usually are, taking her revenge by snuffing out the swine who would have his way with her, rather than just posting a few lines on #metoo.

Despite the subject matter there were interludes of humour which I found alleviated the mood somewhat and I would recommend it for first-time opera-goers who want to take advantage of the Try it ON discounted ticket scheme.

Cavaradossi and Tosca before the ‘mock’ execution

The only thing I found a bit confusing was that the costumes, by Rotini Dimou, although obviously more up to date than those which would have been worn in 1900 when the opera was written, did not seem to be as up to date as the using of a laptop would suggest. On the other hand they may just get their clobber from the same place as I do.

Speaking of the laptop, this is the first time I have ever seen an operatic duet sung by a performer on stage and another being tortured via a MacBook.

As previously alluded to, the set by Tom Scutt, was very imaginative highlighting the eyes of the model by having that part of the mural on a large stand being worked on by the artist and then placed in position for the denouement. In Act 2 when Scarpia lures Tosca to his room, there is a brilliantly designed bed which is a take on a four-poster but once the couple start to get violent it is very reminiscent of a boxing ring or a MMA cage.

Tosca exacting revenge from Sarpia

The lighting by Lee Curran was very evocative and switched – no pun intended for once – between the dimly lit chapel and the celebratory concert seamlessly.

The orchestra, conducted by Garry Walker, was up to its usual immaculate standard and the whole evening was a very pleasant experience.

This version of the opera was first directed by Edward Dick in 2018 at Leeds Grand Theatre.

Tosca is at Leeds Grand Theatre on various dates until Thursday, 2nd March after which it tours to Salford Quays, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull. For more details and to book please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/tosca-2023/ where you will also find a link to the Try it ON scheme I mentioned.

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