Review: Tosca, Hackney Empire

The visceral austerity of the English Touring Opera’s (ETO) set, with its sharp lines, captures the murky undertones of a Rome in 1800 at the centre of a European power struggle in this production of Tosca.

The verticality and almost neo-classical severity of the stage, coupled with its lack of any ostentatious details or props, calls to mind a Fascist architectural vision – something seemingly worlds apart from the Renaissance masterpiece the Palazzo Farnese, and the Baroque basilica church Sant’Andrea della Valle where the opera is originally set.

This obvious tension between Puccini’s sensual musical motifs and subject matter, and the hostile, grounding setting established in Blanche McIntyre’s production, clearly cements the central theme of love, art, and an appreciation of beauty as something false and ultimately futile.

As a travelling opera company, the ETO does have to rely on relatively simple yet striking sets. Tosca, a work apparently requiring an elaborate scheme could seem like a bold choice. Perhaps, however, this environment can be seen to be in accord with Puccini’s own intentions: the opera is written at a moment nearing the end of the nineteenth century which became increasingly characterised by a split between higher forms of art and popular entertainment (Henry Arthur Jones drew attention at the time to the distinction between ‘popular amusement’ and ‘acts of drama’).

Scarpia (Craig Smith) and Tosca, (Paula Sides) in a hidden stand-off. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Clearly, Tosca transcends such binary labels and satisfies a less discerning audience with a lust for passion and torture, as well as attempting to create some form of high art.

This is what ETO’s rendition manages to communicate so well: it pitches the archetypes of high art as an ideal (seen in Puccini’s delicate motifs) against popular appeal as something tangible and ‘real’ (visible in not only Scarpia’s torture of Cavaradossi and lust for Tosca, but also the severity and starkness of the atmosphere – colour and daylight are conspicuously absent). Puccini (and now McIntyre) therefore both focus on a thought-provoking blend of the ideal and the concrete.

This is emphasised by Alexander James Edward’s colourful portrayal of the painter Mario Cavaradossi, with his easy and teasing dismissals of Tosca’s (played sensitively by Paula Sides) jealous habits – a woman who in stark contrast is desperately clinging on to an ideal of love and beauty. She searches for these harmonies through her own ‘art’ of acting and singing, claiming at her most desperate moment: ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ (I lived for art, I lived for love).

These morals, however, lead her nowhere and she comes to a tragic end, throwing herself from the parapet. With Tosca’s departure to the heavens, the audience is left with a stage full of unflinching men staring out at us as we wonder whether harmony, beauty, and love always have to exist in ideal forms.

Tosca played at the Hackney Empire until 9 March.