Tosca – The Festival Theatre

Opera created by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Revival Direction by Jonathan Cocker

Leader of The Orchestra of Scottish Opera – Anthony Moffat

Conducted by Stuart Stratford

Puccini’s melodramatic masterpiece Tosca has it all; corruption, lust, heartbreak and the bureaucracy of history. Shifting the timeframe into the 20th century, there is still a stringent root to Puccini’s origins in 1900. Practically flawless in execution, Tosca moves beyond a visual wonder with Stuart Stratford’s musical conduction and direction. Under the growing shadow of Benito Mussolini, Floria Tosca attempts to liberate her beloved from the clutches of fascist oppression, but as their grip tightens so too does the risk of the lives involved.

A leitmotif in composition, Puccini allows singers leeway in a way few other composers achieve which gives Tosca an edge of humour other Operas cannot obtain without embracing the genre of comedy to the full extent. It accentuates the melodramatic blood which thrusts our leads forward, embracing the grandeur of the production, while still connecting with an audience. The libretto has narrative focus, but this revival at the hands of Scottish Opera and Jonathon Cocker impacts immediately, not with its song, but with visuals.

Decadent, there’s astonishing detail in Peter Rice’s design that offers a framework of renaissance sculpture. Rarely, perhaps never, has a production been so befitting of the Festival Theatre’s stage. A trio of spectacles, which depths are plumbed to offer scale, serve a unique purpose, and is in stark contrast to Scottish Opera’s previous settings for likes of Rigoletto. Here there is no room for minimalism or symbolic structure, no, this is craftsmanship at it’s most architectural. Hallowed stones of alabaster-marble, to a looming figure atop the fortress and imposing fireplaces, Tosca has the skeleton to hold spectacle, now hopefully it packs the lungs to carry this off.

Let’s be frank. We both know the operatic skills of this evenings performers go without question. Nae, it would be insulting to suggest there are issues with vocals, as there are none. These are trained professionals in the height of their ability, not merely in scale but control, emotive connection and tonal changes. These are storytellers as much as they are singers. Even those outwith the three leads of Tosca, Cavaradossi or Scarpia provide spine-shivering evidence that despite having over a century under the belt, so long as Scottish Opera can unearth and maintain exceptional talents such as Aled Hall, Paul Carey Jones or Steven Faughey, then Tosca will survive and ignite audiences again, and again.

Puccini’s adoration for women almost exceeds that of music, evident in Tosca herself. Fiercely resilient, profound in her determination, Tosca, as one may imagine, is central to the motivations of men throughout the production. Far from a temptress or stereotype, Tosca captures the moral depravity men will slither to in pursuit of selfish ideals, yet also the redemptive capacities humanity is capable of. Natalya Romaniw’s masterful voice ebbs away at the audience, for a brief moment, we are numb to the world around us as she recites her solo aria Vissi d’arte over her love for Cavaradossi.

“Ecco un artista!” and what an actor indeed, Gwyn Hugh Jones’ role as the painter, lover and revolutionary concealer Cavaradossi goes beyond mere vocal performance. Scottish Opera has an embedded appreciation of the medium, beyond its impression of solitary arias, breathing life into their productions. While his swansong moments in Act 3 etch into the minds of the audience, it is Hugh Jones’ oratorio moments within the house of God which stands out amidst borderline cinematic scenery. It also places him in stark contrast to the antagonistic Scarpia, the sycophantic leather-clad worshipper of one Benito Mussolini.

Eagerly revelling in our jeers and boos, Hall and Roland Wood match their vile villainy not only in presence but their mastery of vocals equally. A thick, pulsing vein of corruption runs at the heart of Puccini’s opera, a political bureaucracy at the core of Europe. Sly, vindictive and repugnant in approach, Wood’s Scarpia is a monstrous reminder of Italian fascism. Yet, even beauty turns its face towards evil, as Wood’s baritone’s tremble the marble adorning his office, the flames themselves shuddering at his presence, as his rising malice is snuffed out by Tosca’s kiss, the night hushes into new daybreak.

Dawn breaks, as does a brief respite from the dramatic tension of the previous act’s climax. Here especially, soak in Cocker’s respect for the orchestra, as the aria holds itself in reverence of the musicians. As the soldiers await their duty, the atmosphere lingers with glints of cigarillo sparks. Lead by Anthony Moffat, the composition of the piece is exquisite in richness, perfectly pacing itself to a building crescendo to reflect the upcoming finale. Particularly for the string portion’s, the orchestra stands toe-toe with those of the vocals, concocting a symphony of artistry, which ties together each element of Scottish Opera’s Tosca, finishing up a comprehensive production.

Perhaps a reflective comment but there’s a concern that Tosca may not be 100% accessible for non-devotees. This is, without question, meticulously crafted with undeniable talent, there’s an air of reverence for the production that those unfamiliar with Tosca will perhaps not comprehend. Still, Scottish Opera’s Tosca is a definitive incarnation, standing the test of a centuries history, art and revivals. It is a testament to the companies merit, talent and ability and a precise way to close their 2019 season alongside Iris‘ one-off performance at City Halls, Glasgow.  

Scottish Opera’s Tosca runs until Saturday 23rd of November. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/tosca

Photo Credit – James Glossop

Forget Me Not – Royal Lyceum Theatre

Piano & Conduction by Barrie Kosky

Performed by Komische Oper Berlin 

When it comes to Yiddish culture, it’s true what they say – they made Hollywood. They built Broadway. There is not a composer or lyricist creating today in Western culture who was not, indirectly or otherwise, influenced in some way by Yiddish musicians, singers and composers. A team of three from the Komische Oper Berlin bring the reverence of their entire orchestra to Scotland to pay tribute to Yiddish language and the creators before them.

For a mere 4,000 years, Jewish culture has stood as the oldest monotheistic religion. With this, the Yiddish language is around 1000 years old, though speakers are now significantly lower due to the events of the Second World War. But Forget Me Not – sung in Yiddish with English subtitles – is not about sympathy, nor tear-shedding. Featuring the works of genre-defining composers Abraham EllsteinJoseph Rumshinsky and the lyricist Molly Picon, it is a celebration of the language from Warsaw, to Broadway, and then back again.

Pianist Barrie Kosky kicks off the show with a tone which pervades the evening. His approach generates a familial atmosphere; this is just one extensive gathering of your relatives, friends, and those uncles you never liked. It’s warming, his humour effortless, and the decision to avoid scripted junctions between songs brings a natural rapport with the audience.

Performing arias and occasionally sharing the stage are Alma Sadé and Komische legend Helene Schneiderman. Though both primarily sopranos, Schneiderman teeters into the edges of mezzo-soprano when the occasion calls. Vocally exceptional, the way they perform stands them apart from their peers. Together they take us back to the misery and sarcasm of Yiddish Operetta, spanning film and stage productions from the 1880s to the 1930s.

Scriptures, poems and songs bare the scars of history. Imploring us to keep our mindsets away from 1933, encouragement is still needed to liberate the forgotten music of the Holocaust. Abraham Goldfaden’s Rozhinkes mit mandl’n, or Raisins & Almonds, is a lullaby mothers, sisters and friends would sing to the children in the concentration camps. To describe the beauty this number summons, primarily through the soprano tones of Sadé and Schneiderman, feels inherently wrong, yet this haunting, instilling performance is breathtaking in its gravitas.

It isn’t all tears, however, as a goal of changing the mindset over Jewish history is up for discussion. The Holocaust, always to hold as an example of how far from the path humanity can stray, does not define a people. With this, an appropriate amount of melodramatic comedy is thrust into the audience, swaying the emotional pendulum in the opposite direction. It’s all or nothing this evening. Schneiderman lifts any doldrum slithering into the mindset of the audience from the poignant pieces mentioned. Her louder than life attitude, unequivocally controlling her vocals, reminds us of the celebration aspect in the evening, bringing Yiddish culture to life on stage.

Opera has a grand image of bold, belting numbers. Forget Me Not is of a different calibre, balancing prestige and a sense of humour. Sadé and Schneiderman’s ability to carry the vocals without resulting in bombastic shrieks is testament to their marvellous skill.

Review originally published for Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/forget-me-not/

Amadeus & The Bard – National Museum of Scotland

Director & Creator – Mary McCluskey

Musical Director – Karen MacIver

Based on the works of Robert Burns and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Two champions of their time, etching a significant mark on history few can claim, Robert Burns and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived hundreds of miles apart, but an intense connection in their works ripple throughout culture. Paying homage to the pair, Scottish Opera shares a love of storytelling with these masters, bonding the pair’s verse, composition and passion with their creators and performers.

Where finer to set such a re-telling of these men’s lives than somewhere they both had a great deal of adoration for? The pub. Drinking aside, the infamous Poosie Nansie, this den of revelry, a place of familiarity to fans of Tam O’ Shanter is an excellent setting to present the works of both Wolfie and Rabbie. Taking in a few swallies, this band of merry misfits comprise a selection of Scottish Opera’s youth company, inviting you to jig, sing and join them on this journey. 

Full of vim and vigour, this zestful cast bring the likes of Don Giovanni, Jean Armour and of course, a spirit of two, to fruition with a notable Scots flair. Cementing the production with a stamp of Scottish Opera’s standards, baritone Arthur Bruce and Stephanie Stanway’s soprano role lend immense vocal prowess. Full of character, in control of their tone and range – the projection, even for a small venue, is admirable.

It isn’t as easy as one would imagine, aligning the works of these two artists. Both have notable works, singularly they spark cultural revolutions – so how can blending them maintain their original force? Luckily, thematically the pair share a great deal: in particular matters of the heart, of women and the supernatural. Never would one suspect that Rabbie’s ‘A Man’s a Man For a’ That’ work so sublimely with Mozart’s Queen of the Night? An aria which would define a genre works as a stellar foundation– it’s a pleasant thought what Karen MacIver’s musical direction could turn towards next.

The storytelling elements lacing around a freshly packed Tam O’ Shanter, its recitation to the tones of Mozart, lift the tone of the piece tremendously. Andy Clark’s storyteller may not carry the vocals of some performers, but he is paramount in the production’s success as the purveyor of tales. With an invitation to extend our imagination, Clark fuels a passionate fire for both the Bard and the composer, urging us to go into the word with a ballad, with a tune and a thirst for more.

Sitting there, accordion on her lap, fingers on the ivories and mind racing with direction – MacIver is the heart, beating beneath the chest of Amadeus and The Bard. Alongside exceptional violinist Shannon Stevenson, they are the lifeblood of the show. Together with Mary McCluskey’s vision, the pair breathe life into the memories of Robert Burns and Amadeus Mozart. McCluskey’s conception is profoundly evocative of Scottish humour, showcasing of the future of Scottish Opera in a manner which delights the people – just what Rabbie and Wolfie would have wanted.

Photo credit – Sally Jubb

Tickets available for Paisley Friday 4th October & Scottish Opera Production Studios 11th – 12th October: https://www.scottishopera.org.uk/shows/amadeus-the-bard/