Puccini’s Tosca is 114 years old, and is originally set at a time of an Italy divided, facing the onslaught of a Napoleonic invasion. Yet its themes, as expressed by this production’s poster, of “love, lust and corruption”, are timeless, transcending 1899, and fitting effortlessly and intelligently in Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s East Berlin 1989 setting, a time of fear, paranoia and political decay, perfectly suited to Puccini’s original concept.
Indeed, Spreadbury-Maher’s imaginative new social and historical context not only succeeds in feeling right, it is morbidly fascinating also. We are witnessing a veneer shedding, a facade of moral and political order almost audibly creaking at the seams. The fall of the Berlin Wall is imminent, and this allows for a more frantic, a more urgent feel to the threat of disappearance of ‘undesirables’, and the omnipresent fear of death, represented excellently and brutally in the scene in which Scarpia so callously shreds photos of Mario. This is a time when singing the Red Flag, as is done by the caretaker in Act 1, actually meant something, rather than the lip-service it is given at Labour Party conferences today. This is all reinforced by Christopher Hone’s deliberately soulless and dour set, a depressing collection of washed-out pastel colours and chipboard tables, whilst portraits of Lenin and Honecker, representing the past and present of the Soviet system, glare quizzically out at the audience.
The plot in this version is less important than the basic themes and example of stasi injustice. Briefly, Floria Tosca, a renowned singer, returns to her love, the painter Mario, who is hiding the escaped political prisoner Angelotti. Hot on Angelotti’s tail is Chief of Police, Scarpia, who takes Mario into custody. Fearful for Mario’s future, Tosca discloses Angelotti’s whereabouts to Scarpia, before the cruel fragility of love is revealed.
Becca Marriott and James Harrison in particular soar beyond their opera backgrounds, complementing their faultless vocals with thoroughly absorbing and ultimately devastating performances. Harrison drips with brutal menace as the venomous Scarpia, while the emotion that would normally be conveyed through a full orchestra was supplemented sublimely by Marriott’s thoroughly heartbreaking performance. Tenor Edward Hughes shines as Mario, too.
Full marks go to the OperUpClose for its continued mission to free opera from itself, to liberate the medium from the perception that it is the of last bastion of ‘high art’, the preserve of the artistic elite. The Soho, along with some of London’s other off-West End venues, such as the King’s Head, where Spreadbury-Maher is Artistic Director, and OperaUpClose is in residency, are steadily deconstructing the reductionist argument that opera is somehow no longer relevant. It most certainly is.
114 years on, this is not a translation, not even a ‘reimagining’. This is a new and fresh piece of writing; just the kind of thing you’d expect from the always exciting and vibrant Soho Theatre.
Tosca is playing at the Soho Theatre until 15 September. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.