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

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/

Silvano: Scottish Opera @ Usher Hall

Image Contribution:
Paul Foster – Williams

Composer: Pietro Mascagni

Musical Director: Stuart Stratford

Adapted from Alphonse Karr’s novel, Pietro Mascagni composed Silvano as a two-act opera in 1895. The seafaring drama is, well, precisely that. At its core is a love-triangle, and we all know how those end. Set against a fishing town on the Adriatic coast, young fisherman Silvano’s passion for Matilde spurns his former friend Renzo with violent consequences.

So why Silvano? In short, the unfamiliarity. Scottish Opera’s attraction to forgotten relics of operatic history drags them to the surface. In true verismo style, Roxana Haines’ Silvano is not staged as a full opera, but instead conducted as a concert, which adds to the realism of the original libretto. We have nothing but our performers, the lyrics and accomplished musicians. This is all we require for greatness.  

There’s tremendous openness with staging Silvano this way. It places the orchestra – the lifeblood and beating heart of any opera – at the forefront, and allows the audience to appreciate the magnitude of skill on offer, to see the inner workings of the behemoth usually kept hidden.

Despite the title, the tour de force performance is found not with Silvano (Alexey Dolgov) but instead with Matilde, performed by soprano Emma Bell. Her control is awe-inspiring, particularly in her accomplished projection with marvellous diction. The emotion conveyed is raw, her desperation and disgrace evident. The softer vocals of Dolgov, and David Stout’s aggressive Renzo, contribute to the duality of the characters.  

A drawback occurs with Rosa, Silvano’s mother portrayed by Leah-Marian Jones – not vocally, but with how little her presence gives to the story. Silvano is one of Mascagni’s shorter pieces, meaning pacing suffers. Whilst the subtle score allows for imaginative water motifs, it feels less free-flowing and more huddled together narratively.

Mascagni’s lyrical construction though allows for flexibility in delivery, helping communicate the narrative. It’s no secret that opera isn’t the easiest art form to understand – language barrier aside, issues arise with the speed of delivery and lyricism. This isn’t an issue with Silvano, the mixture of aria and almost recitative spoken word offers accessibility.

Stuart Stratford’s conduction is, as expected, masterful. Silvano is an uncomplicated opera but also a gem deserving of a turn in the spotlight. Its minor flaws lie not with Scottish Opera, but with the original adapted composition. It is opera at its most unadulterated and transparent, pure but effective.

Review originally published for The Skinny:
https://www.theskinny.co.uk/theatre/shows/reviews/silvano-usher-hall-edinburgh