Staging Puccini’s legendary Tosca on a small stage in the back of a pub is one of those things you have to see to believe it’s possible. Big voices in a tiny space reverberating through the boozy bar just doesn’t feel like the right crowd or place. But resident company at the King’s Head Theatre, Opera Up Close (in association with Malmö Opera), have changed that.
In Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production (which he both directed and wrote the new libretto for), Tosca is updated from Rome facing the threat of Napoleon’s empire, to East Berlin in 1989 as communism falls. Spreadbury-Maher’s compressed version only shares the essentials of the original plotline. There’s something very tragic about Puccini’s tragedy being played out in a yellowing back room. The characters are reduced to a cast of four: the lovers Tosca (Becca Marriott) and Mario (Edward Hughes), the chief of police Scarpia (James Harrison), with the other roles (Angelotti, Sagrestano/Careteaker and Spoletta, an amalgamation of smaller roles) played by Miles Horner. I have nothing against translating works but the everyday turns of phrase and blunt bordering on bland dialogue took away all the poetry of Tosca. Tosca and Mario are threatened by their own governments for information concerning the harbouring of a fugitive and the setting for this could be as terrifying as the original, but this production quite simply lacks menace.
It just doesn’t feel like there’s anything at stake for Tosca and Mario, and this isn’t helped by the poor aesthetics of the Nina Fransson’s set. Were it not for the date and map of Germany hanging obviously on the wall, I wouldn’t have been able to identify the setting for this production. The production looks confused; the musicians for example wear drab jumpsuits which make the MD Elspeth Wilkes appear reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter in WWII Germany – it definitely looks dated but lazily and tackily so. Whatever the story, if the set looks low budget then it’s difficult to emotionally invest in a world which doesn’t look believable.
The cast’s resonating notes fill the room in a refreshingly intimate opera experience, even if it can leave you a little light headed at times. It allows you to more keenly appreciate the skill of these performers, however, it equally puts their faults under the spotlight. This is a cast of gorgeous singers. Marriott’s bird-like trills in particular ring delightfully without the overpowering the audience like the rest of the cast. Her and Hughes’s chemistry is most definitely charged, yet both lack charismatic characters as individuals. Marriott’s acting does improve; at first she is irritatingly smiley, but it would appear she excels much more at tragedy and injects fear and hate into her voice most convincingly. Her second act with Harrison as Scarpia is the only thrilling one to watch, as Scarpia matches her melodramatic turns with vicious authority and a booming voice. The real let down is Horner who has to overact to differentiate his roles, and attempts to force laughter out of the audience as the caretaker. He also over-enunciates his consonants like a musical theatre performer vying for attention in his bit parts. The orchestra is also disappointingly reduced to a three part band that struggles to communicate the wealth of Puccini’s score or carry a cast of strong voices so the music ultimately lacks impact.
Opera Up Close’s last Puccini production, of La Boheme three years ago, is still going strong, but Tosca pales in comparison. Updated productions of classics are absolutely justifiable, but Spreadbury-Maher doesn’t do Puccini justice in this production which underwhelms and struggles to find a confident, contemporary identity.
Tosca is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 10th November. Photo by Tim James Medley.