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

Hitler’s Tasters – Greenside Infirmiry

Written by Michelle Kholos Brooks

Runs at Greenside Infirmary, August 5th – 24th (Not 11th or 18th), 18.35pm

Fifteen women would carry out, what they consider, a job of notoriety and honour during World War II. With the risk of assassination peaking, they would dine on the foods of the Third Reich, no steak of course. They were guinea pigs. A first-line of defence for the Fuhrer from his enemies attempts at ending his rule. They were Hitler’s Tasters.

Until 2012, there was no confirmation of their existence, when the final living member Margot Wölk spoke out. The production, billing itself as a dark comedy, reads more like a drama with comedic elements. It’s a fascinating concept, three women confined to a cinder-block room. Where boredoms, jealousy and illuminating ideas of American film stars set in.

Hitler’s Tasters has another, important message behind its historical tale. Its a look at the banality of evil, seamless triumph in stirring hate, and how gullible people are when requested by their President Fuhrer. Originating from the States, though entirely coincidental, the American voice hammers in transparent warnings we should recognise with 1930’s Germany.

There’s a trend of technology bleeding into a contemporary commentary. Selfies and Madonna were not the expected pass times of the women subject to this job. In a world of ‘insta-famous’, the decision to include phone-obsession for these women, who were still girls oversteps. The concept, the idea that they could be famous for their role in protecting the Fuhrer is an ingenious insight into young women’s influencer aspirations. The constant selfies over-stay their welcome though, belittling the weight of the production.

Here we have Hitler’s Tasters misstep. Dark comedy works at its best when paying respect to the subject. Comedy is the focus over story-telling. A shame, as Mary Kathryn Hopp, showcases a pathos, a genuine tear-building whenever the illumination of the guards bursts into the cell. The entire female cast has a tremendous sense of sisterhood, even when turning on one another.

With laughs, Michelle Kholos Brooks’ script misses the beat. Perhaps, at the risk of sounding pretentious, there’s a loss from their American audiences. For the UK, offence is a currency. A few moments are good jokes, punches which stir middle-class sniggers rather than bellyaches. Rushing pace, jokes don’t land as neatly as there’s a sense of sweeping it off the ground before causing insult.

Frustratingly, Hitler’s Tasters is a tweak from a contemporary, brass-neck smack at historical repression and the resurgence of political manipulation. As it stands, the ingredients lay on the counter – a starter awaiting a few more spices before serving the main course.

Tickets available from: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/hitler-s-tasters

Photo credit – Cody Butcher

The Tailor of Inverness @ The Brunton

Image Contribution:
Dogstar Theatre

Writer: Matthew Zajac

Director: Ben Harrison

War and all of its travesties will never be understood. From the British perspective – we were the heroes, they the villains. When presented with people quite literally in the bootstraps of the opposition many are unable to connect. The stories told by people leaving the Third Reich behind are sometimes worn proudly, as a warning. Sometimes hushed, wishing to forget, but for the case of immigrants such as Mateusz Zajac, the reinvention of his time during the war is to ensure his acceptance in Scotland as The Tailor of Inverness.

The son of the Polish tailor, Matthew Zajac has endeavoured to get to the foundations of his father Mateusz’s life during his enigmatic years. Playing both the role of he and his father, this stage adaption keeps the descriptive plot and offers poignant performances with rich accompaniment by fiddler Gavin Marwick.

As the tailor’s strings are stitched, woven into his son Matthew’s jacket it’s within these threads we find the inherent fault with an otherwise remarkable piece of theatre. For those familiar, it’s no secret that Zajac’s writing is at its pinnacle superb, at its weakest complicated. Several threads are left untightened throughout the narrative, though with reason. When all the strands are in place – Zajac pulls the hems together and what we hope for is a tight piece where all threads align. In truth, it isn’t as difficult as others claim to follow – but for the general theatre-going public, it is not straightforward.

Zajac’s ardent performance inherently helps the story. As this is his story, his father’s story, the story of his family and his cultural identity – the delivery is natural. It’s volatile in its emotion, painful to hear, but eye-opening to watch. There’s merriment, dancing and humour – his performance isn’t only compelling, but enjoyable.

Where the theatrical adaption enhances the book, is with the ability to offer visuals. We see the interviews and hear the audio tapes Matthew has made in his travels. While we often enjoy making our own images, the projections allow us to invest so much more in this family’s growth story. The impressive set design, a series of garments flattened into a screen is an inventive method to allow for projection. The ridges in the shirt cuffs, however, cause obstruction of words if you’re far to either side of the theatre.

The theme of circling is eternally present in Zajac’s text, it’s themed such as a strive to battle against ourselves, identity and this complex narrative. The story told by his father, of circling a fox in order to snare it runs parallel to other events. The first, Matthew’s closing in around his father’s footsteps before his time in Scotland. More though, on the subject of immigration, is Mateusz’s reinvention of his past.

Immigration is not just a ‘current’ issue, tragically it’s always been an issue. Even in the reparations of war, Mateusz found himself in another circle – a circle of his own creation surrounding his time in the Soviet Union, as a soldier for the German side, but also a prisoner of war. The truth spiralling in on him, The Tailor of Inverness is indeed relevant still today, just as it was 10 years ago.

Transitioning to the stage works for The Taylor of Inverness, though only so much. The original text has space in order to lay it’s groundwork more seamlessly. The passion, power and triumphant ability within Zajac’s performance is commanding. Regardless of complexity, The Tailor of Inverness is still the construction of importance, an empathetic yet defiant examination of family, reinvention, storytelling and two men’s different but extraordinary journeys.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:
https://www.thereviewshub.com/the-tailor-of-inverness-brunton-theatre-musselburgh/

Production touring: http://www.dogstartheatre.co.uk/