October 3, 2008
Christopher Alden

All change

Directing Puccini is a slap in the face; directing Handel is a stroll in a formal garden. What's it like to go from one to the other overnight? Christopher Alden explains

I'm sitting on a train from Leeds to London. It's a journey I've come to know all too well over the past few weeks as I've been dividing my time between rehearsing a revival of my six-year-old production of Puccini's Tosca for Opera North and a new production of Handel's Partenope for English National Opera. The train trips have been a breeze; a far spikier journey is the psychological one I've been making as I've shuttled back and forth between the distant galaxies of these two operatic masterpieces.

Sometimes it makes me feel like a pretty archaic guy to have spent such a large chunk of my life in rehearsal rooms breathing life into such an arcane art form, rather than just getting my butt behind a movie camera. But let's not forget that the first silent films emerged directly out of the realistic slice-of-life genre of verismo opera. Puccini's Tosca is one of the crowning achievements of that genre, as taut a piece of storytelling as anything DW Griffith or Martin Scorsese ever came up with. My Opera North production is an attempt to clear away the cobwebs of tradition and sentiment that have formed around this familiar piece, and expose the brutal heart of its dystopian vision.

The posters for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party that line the walls of the dingy church basement in which this Tosca is set rob the audience of the comforting thought that Scarpia's repressive despotism has vanished from our world. And when it comes to the last act, the production rejects the naturalistic verismo ethic as the best way to capture its bleak horror; instead, it is played out as a fantasy unfolding in the broken Tosca's demented mind. By the final curtain, the basement is littered with the corpses and the atmosphere hovers somewhere between Beckett and Tarantino.

Six years ago, I reckoned I'd probably be crucified for my take on this staple of the repertoire, comforted only by the thought that hanging from crosses on either side of me would be my set designer, Charles Edwards, and my costume designer, Jon Morrell. All three of us were pleasantly shocked when the critical response was rapturous.

Fast-forward six years, and the thought of trying to recapture the magic of what we considered to be one of the best shows we'd ever put on was daunting. Revivals are tricky balancing acts. However, sitting on the train back to London the morning after opening night, I feel a sense of fulfillment. The production's mojo is intact, thanks mainly to the electric jolt given to it by the cast.

The task set for them is not an easy one: to play their characters not as heroic, romantic, glamorous or flamboyantly evil, but as ordinary people caught up in the car-crash of events that is the plot of Tosca. The hard part for the singers is to do this while pumping out the hyped-up vocalism Puccini's high-octane music demands, composed to accompany a more demonstrative, melodramatic operatic acting style. But last night they paced it perfectly, first creating an ambience of low-key banality, then slowly turning up the heat until, by the end, the audience were slapped full in the face by the horror of what human beings are capable of doing to each other.

The old theatrical adage "dying is easy, comedy is hard" is easily adjusted to "Puccini is easy, Handel is hard". It's less than two weeks until I open Partenope at ENO. The rehearsals over the past month have been an intense ride through one of Handel's greatest pieces: a parade of exquisite arias illuminating one of the most wittily satirical librettos he ever set. But could any piece of theatre be further removed from Puccini's slap in the face than Handel's leisurely stroll through the formal garden of romantic relationships?

The truth is that Handel was every inch as brilliant at fashioning musical theatre as Puccini. Just allow yourself to settle into the plush sedan chair of his musical world and you will enjoy the privilege of letting time stand still. You will luxuriate for a while inside a single moment, examining an emotion from many different sides, rather like staring at a surrealist painting that simultaneously depicts a scene from multiple angles.

That's why the set designer, Andrew Lieberman, the costume designer, Jon Morrell, my co-director, Peter Littlefield, and I chose to set our production of Partenope in a dreamy version of 1920s Paris, among a coterie of surrealist artists, all in the thrall of a mercurial woman who presides over their little circle like a queen over her court. In the character of Partenope (played by soprano Rosemary Joshua), Handel paints a fascinating portrait of a powerful woman (Elizabeth I? Margaret Thatcher? Coco Chanel?) and her complex relationships with the men who vie to be her main guy. Since this is a Handel opera, gender ambiguity is an amusingly kinky part of the mix, and a couple of those men are played by women (mezzos Patricia Bardon and Christine Rice). Throw in a countertenor (Iestyn Davies, who channels adorably the spirit of Buster Keaton), a bass (James Gower, who plays Ormonte as Partenope's gay brother) and a tenor (John Mark Ainsley), and you have a pretty potent mix. There should be an Olympic event called "Performing a Handel Aria". It may involve a different set of variables than performing Puccini, but it is no less complex a demonstration of multi-tasking.

The train is pulling into King's Cross and I'm headed straight to a rehearsal at the Coliseum. Will Handel bring me and the London audience the same fulfillment in a week or so as Puccini did last night in Leeds? It's bound to be an utterly different kind of experience - but (fingers crossed) equally compelling.

• Partenope opens at the Coliseum, London, on October 9. Tosca is at the Grand Theatre, Leeds until October 31. Then touring.