A Northern Irish Tosca

How did the newly formed Northern Ireland Opera’s very first production shape up? Terry Blain returns to his home patch to find out…

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Derry. Or possibly Londonderry. Nomenclature is still a controversial issue in Northern Ireland's second city. Northern Ireland Opera, a brand-new company risen from the ashes of its local antecedents Castleward and Opera Fringe, diplomatically hedged its bets by listing ‘Derry-Londonderry’ on its website as the venue for its inaugural production, a run of three performances of Puccini’s Tosca.

A conservative choice, possibly? Not really, when you think of it. Tosca’s raw ingredients – deadly opposition between republican and royalist, political imprisonment, murder, torture, suicide, with a heady admixture of religion thrown in for good measure – are also, sadly, those of ‘The Troubles’, Northern Ireland’s 30-year nightmare of savage sectarian conflict.

It’s some measure of the distance travelled already by the ongoing peace process that a home-grown production of Puccini’s gruesome political drama could be mounted in Derry-Londonderry in 2011. A mere decade ago the bloody subject-matter of the opera would probably still have been too difficult to stomach, the cultural milieu still too stymied and impoverished to engender such a boldly imaginative project.

The Derry-Londonderry production was special in other ways too. It used three historic venues in the city (St Columb’s Cathedral, the Guildhall, and St Columb’s Hall), one for each act. Two were inside, one in close proximity to the ancient ramparts of the ‘Maiden City’, so-called (again not uncontroversially) because of the fabled resistance of the inhabitants in the Siege of Derry in 1689, when the Catholic King James II attempted to starve the citizens into capitulation.

A chilling reminder that conflict has not entirely departed the region came a mere four days before curtain-up, when a large bomb was planted by dissident republicans a stone’s throw from St Columb’s Cathedral, as local schoolchildren were inside rehearsing their part in the Tosca production. Mercifully it failed to detonate.

Did the three different settings work? Logistically there must have been major difficulties doing so many things – lighting, seating, ushering, rehearsing – in triplicate. On the opening evening, however, everything ran like clockwork, the capacity audience perambulating animatedly between the venues, mingling with orchestral players carrying their instruments, and friendly stewards pointing non-locals in the right direction.

Artistically the choice of a cathedral setting for Act One placed this Tosca squarely in its natural element, the orchestral players seated unobtrusively in the side chapel and behind the altar, and a brazen Ulster sunset illuminating the gleaming stained-glass window above them. Oliver Mears’s modern-dress production studiously avoided overheating a drama that he clearly feels is more than hot enough already.

Great care was taken in the early scenes to delineate the human intimacy of the relationships between Angelotti, Cavaradossi and Tosca, and, later, between the choirboys and Sacristan, a role for once convincingly given its comic due by Cork-born baritone Brendan Collins. With Scarpia, inhumanity enters, the cathedral aisle (used effectively by Mears as part of the action) flooded in harsh neon glare, and the grim political agenda kicked in threateningly.

Understatement was again the watchword: Paul Carey Jones completely eschewed the cartoon villain school of interpretation, replacing it with a slow-burn sadism and sense of menace all the more effective for its lack of histrionics. Derry’s Guildhall was the Act Two setting, its polished wood-panelling and handsome civic symbols a telling counterpoint to the brutality unravelling in the narrative.

Mears’s staging had incredible cumulative intensity, Scarpia’s attempted rape of Tosca occurring literally inches from the front row of the audience, his murder spurting blood liberally over the committee room furniture, filing cabinets, and assorted fixtures and fittings.

Belfast-born Giselle Allen, in her first Tosca, excelled in her confrontation with the Police Chief, ominous in the sotto voce asides, thrillingly untrammelled in her outbursts of desperation and violence. There was no curtain: the audience filed soberly past the still prostrate, blood-soaked corpse of Scarpia, splayed on a table-top, when the action had finished.

Act Three, in St Columb’s Hall (not part of the Cathedral), had a traditional proscenium arch stage, made immeasurably more claustrophobic by the pinched-in, foreshortened set design depicting a shabbily-tiled police execution chamber. Mears used the orchestral introduction as underscoring for the chillingly choreographed shooting of an anonymous prisoner, adumbrating Cavaradossi’s impending execution, and complete with more blood-spattering, clinically hosed down before the doomed artist's arrival.

Mexican tenor Jesús León (also making his Tosca debut) sang (in English) ‘Lucevan le stelle’ in this grimly foreboding setting, revealing a voice with a ringingly supple top end and lean, strikingly photogenic features. His execution was numbingly summary, Puccini’s ferociously telescoped conclusion whipped passionately to the finishing line by conductor Nicholas Chalmers, whose reading of the score had earlier emphasised its many moments of conversational intimacy, studiously avoiding melodramatic grand opera gestures.

It’s difficult to be dispassionate about Mears’s achievement in this inaugural Northern Ireland Opera production: artistically it was a momentous evening for the region, and there was certainly nothing dispassionate about the reaction of the first-night audience, who gave the performers a standing ovation and cheered them to the rafters.

In a part of the United Kingdom where opera has suffered constantly over the years from chronic inattention and lack of proper funding, and for long periods has seemed simply an irrelevance, Mears and his team have shown at a stroke that there is hunger for the art-form in an area where historically there has been no coherent or continuous operatic tradition.

‘Only connect… ‘, wrote EM Forster. With this Tosca, Mears connected big-time with the Northern Ireland audience, who will now be awaiting his future stagings with the company (a Noye’s Fludde at Belfast Zoo is among those mooted) with the keenest interest.

Terry Blain is a freelance writer and regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine