Orla Boylan with Marcelo Puente in Opera Ireland’s 'Tosca' by Puccini. Photo: Pat Redmond

Orla Boylan with Marcelo Puente in Opera Ireland’s 'Tosca' by Puccini. Photo: Pat Redmond

Opera Ireland Chorus with Eric Martin-Bonnet in Opera Ireland’s 'Tosca' by Puccini. Photo: Pat Redmond

Opera Ireland Chorus with Eric Martin-Bonnet in Opera Ireland’s 'Tosca' by Puccini. Photo: Pat Redmond

First, the drama before the drama. Soprano Cara O'Sullivan was meant to share the role of Tosca with Orla Boylan for this, Opera Ireland's final production. Unfortunately, as rehearsals began, a leg injury of some kind sustained by Cara put paid to that. What a fantastic idea to get two of our own international singers to front the swansong of Opera Ireland – especially right now. It would have celebrated the fact that we can get some things right, at least – but alas it was not to be, and Italian Soprano Amarilli Nizza stepped into the breach.

Nonetheless, it was fascinating to see two totally different, but equally valid interpretations of this role in exactly the same production. Orla Boylan's Tosca was a youthful almost girlish creation, playing the part of an opera singer who lives her life surrounded by beauty. She sings beautiful arias and cavatinas, has a handsome lover – Cavaradossi, who is painting a luscious Madonna in the church. Her first entrance with a bunch of flowers for the altar serves to symbolise a life led in a fulcrum of a pleasing aesthetic milieu. Even her jealous nature, shown by her suspicion that Cavaradossi's current painting is modelled on a secret lover, is playful – she's not wholly in earnest when she asks him to paint the eyes darker – it's an insecure tick that can't be overcome.

Amarilli Nizza on the other hand, was a haughty, materialistic Tosca – a diva from the off; the same flowers seemed to have been bought by a maid and handed deferentially to her on her way out of the house. The jealousy is not a personality defect here – it's part of her psyche. This Tosca is used to being waited on hand and foot and the request for her husband to darken the eyes of the madonna painting are wholly in earnest. Such vain airs and graces provide a stark contrast to the dark shadow of a totalitarian state about envelop her and her lover.

The personification of this state is in the form of Scarpia, the 'Police Chief' in this updating, who arrives to hunt down an escaped political prisoner called Angelotti, who has been hidden by Cavaradossi. Dimitri Platinas' square-jawed Scarpia could not be bettered. In addition to his powerful baritone, his crewcut and cruel eyes are more redolent of the all-powerful KGB boss you might find in a Le Carré novel rather than the overall updating which seems to be 1930s fascist Italy. This works, however, because essentially the bailiwick of an all-powerful totalitarian state is innocently breached by an apolitical Tosca and her lover. The sonorous 'Te Deum' at the end of Act One, delivered by a reverberant and finely balanced chorus, becomes almost an anthem of state control drowning out any individuality, or dissent.

Half way through Act Two, when Tosca can no longer bear the cries of her lover who is being is tortured off stage, she reveals the hiding place of Angelotti. Here the major differences of interpretation become apparent. Orla Boylan's Tosca gradually metamorphoses into a woman of stature, who has to draw on previously unknown strengths to deal with a new reality very, very quickly. Now bargaining for her lover's life by the hitherto unimaginable offering of herself to Scarpia, Orla Boylan delivers the big aria - 'Vissi d'arte' (I Lived for Art) - as an opera diva might: taut, erect, upstage, almost resigned to her fate. Amarilli Nizza's Tosca kneels at the front of the stage in total despair – a haughty, assured, self possessed, woman brought low by circumstances over which she has no control.

It's easy to forget that although this aria is now the most popular hit from the opera, it's the tenor arias that have equally excited the musical public, and Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi gives them a searing quality. I longed for a bit more introspection for some of his big numbers especially for 'E lucevan le stelle' (And the Stars Shone) in Act Three. But he was a great match for both of his Toscas and adapted to their different needs effortlessly, while Andrew Ashwin as Angelotti was convincing if a little too clean cut as an escaped prisoner from the big castle. Maestro Martinenghi kept up a brisk pace and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra did justice to Puccini's sumptuous instrumentation with a seamless continuum from number to number and a perfect balance between orchestra and stage. Eric Martin Bonnet as the Sacristan had a fine voice, but as a relatively young man with strong lean, features, playing the part 'old' reduced his part to caricature and prevented him from offering a fresh perspective on the character. Roberto Covatta as Spoletta and Niall P. Wolfe as Sciarrone gave us an interesting sidelong glance at the doubters in the Scarpia regime, while Des Capliss as the Jailer filled the longer prelude to Act Three with a range of apposite stage business during Imelda Drumm's offerings as a melodious offstage shepherd boy.

The work of design team of Markus Meyer (sets), Sven Bindseil (costumes), and Thomas Maerker (lighting) underlined the righteous certainty of the state by enclosing the playing space with sheer black walls closing in on an impression of a theatrical red curtain, with the chorus outfitted in black and white. By far the most effective imagery came in Act Two, where Scarpia literally keeps Rome underfoot by having a map of the city as his office carpet, and ends up a spread-eagled corpse on his own domain as the avenging heroine stands over him and sings mockingly: “all of Rome trembled before you.”

Tosca's suicidal fall from the battlements at the very end of the opera is usually some sort of jump from upstage. Here, her deliberate walk toward the audience as the houselights go up and curtains come down, leaving us, the audience, with our heroine, arms akimbo, bathed in the auditorium lights, was just one example of Jakob Peters-Messer's sure-footed direction.

Finally, the end of Opera Ireland is an important watershed in the cultural history of this country, and the valedictory editorialising may well seem out of touch with the harsh winds of reality howling around us at the moment. It might be a case of 'if' not 'when' for the much vaunted new company. In the meantime there is life after death. According to the programme for this production, Opera Theatre Company are back next year with a forthcoming production of 'Don Pasqual€' (sic).

John White is a director and workshop facilitator.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini

11-19 November, 2010

Produced by Opera Ireland
In Gaiety Theatre

Conducted by Gianluca Martinenghi

Directed by Jakob Peters-Messer

Designer: Markus Meyer

Costumes: Sven Bindseil

Lighting: Thomas Maerker

With: Orla Boylan (11, 13, 15, 20 Nov), Amarilli Nizza ( 17, 19, 21 Nov), Marcelo Puente, Dimitri Platanias (11, 13, 15, 17, 19 & 21 Nov), Gerard Quinn (20 Nov), Andrew Ashwin, Roberto Covatta, Eric Martin-Bonnet, Nyle Wolfe, Imelda Drumm, Des Capliss.

Reviewed on 11th and 19th November, 2010.