September 9, 2008

Tosca at the Grand Theatre, Leeds

Different take keeps faith with Puccini's plot

Robert Hayward as Scarpia and Takesha Meshe Kizart as Tosca

Richard Morrison

Traditionalists be warned. In this show there's no suicide leap for Tosca, no pretend execution turned real for Cavaradossi, the great Te Deum in Act I is sung to the glory of the national lottery, not God, Scarpia's henchmen use mobile phones, not Napoleonic-era pigeon-post, to hunt down Angelotti, and the entire drama – killings and all – is staged in a single, shabby, vestry-like room. Mind you, it's one of those magic rooms, seen only in conceptual productions, in which people a few feet apart don't seem to notice each other.

Yet Christopher Alden's 2002 staging of Tosca, superbly revived by Opera North, is a compelling night in the theatre. True, the American takes brazen liberties with the time, place and plot of Puccini's 1900 thriller. And sometimes he seems perversely determined to subvert the music's power as well. That's nowhere more apparent than in the passionate Act I duet between Tosca and Cavaradossi, which is comprehensively upstaged by the startling appearance of the hunted Angelotti – in woman's clothing. It's a clever reminder that, in this opera, even love is no protection from the insidious evil wafting like a stench round a Rome controlled by sociopathic thugs.

If Alden plays fast and loose with specifics, he is utterly truthful to what really matters in this gruesomely sadistic opera: the warped psychology that compels human beings to destroy each other. And what convincing characterisations he obtains from his three central protagonists. As Tosca, the lustrous-voiced American soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart may look every inch the megastar: a stunning Naomi Campbell figure in chic shades and boots when she first appears. But this is no haughty diva, pitting her wits against Scarpia. Rather, she's vulnerable, needy, neurotic, raped and demented by the time she is reunited with Rafael Rojas's cowering and notably unheroic (but passionately sung) Cavaradossi.

The most compelling creation is Robert Hayward's Scarpia. Instead of the usual all-powerful ogre, he's your pervy neighbourhood molester, with an obsessive compulsive disorder that forever compels him to fiddle with his anorak or his crotch. Hayward sings the role as chillingly as he plays it.

Excellent vocal contributions also come from Graeme Broadbent's terrorised and traumatised Angelotti and Henry Waddington's Sacristan, the embodiment of the petty official who looks the other way when his bosses are inflicting chilling misdeeds.

There's much to admire in the pit, too. The Italian conductor Andrea Licata is no spring chicken – his CV seems to include every opera house in Italy – but he's new to Britain. On the strength of the forthright orchestral playing, excellent ensemble and pungent sense of theatricality here, he should be invited back quickly and often.