Nederlandse Reisopera’s TOSCA on tour

Opera is, arguably, the most complete and satisfying form of all the performing arts. There’s the music, the singing, the drama, the acting, often a ballet and the opportunity for directors and designers to really make their mark with innovative and original presentations. The last two productions by Nederlandse Reisopera, La Traviata and Der Fliegende Holländer were both those things and were outstanding and very successful. Not wishing to rest on their laurels the company has aimed to be equally daring and original with their current production of Tosca.

Still set in Rome, Italy at least, we find ourselves in a modern police state with uniformed officers and lots of high tech. The single set, in which all the action takes place, is essentially the set for Act II. But gone is the opulence and decadence of Scarpia’s swish apartment in the Palazzo Farnese – it is replaced by a dour police headquarters almost out of 1984 or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil with ceiling-high shelves stuffed with dusty files, computers and a giant screen surveying the city – real big brother stuff. So far so good, a far cry from the fine paintings and furniture we usually see for Act II but I think it worked as a concept, so why not.

The idea was that all the action of Act I, and subsequently Act III, should be observed by the police on their giant screen – fair enough, good idea. The problem was that it wouldn’t have provided much for the audience to look at so the action in the church, which one could fuzzily make out on the screen, was re-enacted on stage, i.e. in police headquarters. Hmmm.

The folly of this idea became apparent almost immediately when Angelotti, a fugitive from the law, bursts into police headquarters and hides in a small office. All the context and drama of the story were lost and there were more absurd moments, like Tosca genuflecting to a fire extinguisher and taking holy water from the office water cooler. The end of Act I with the stage filled with a church procession was just daft.

Act II was fine and the bleak office came into its own and the torturers brought in to deal with Cavaradossi were very scary indeed.

They nearly got away with it in Act III but all the drama and tension of a man awaiting execution was lost.

For all the failings of the concept the music was fine. Noah Stewart made a fine black Cavaradossi and was totally believable as the anarchic young artist. He sang well and his E lucevan le stele was excellent and very moving. Kari Postma shone as Tosca and Phillip Rhodes had a nice voice but I felt he lacked the essential menace and danger that Scarpia needs to be successful. The Orkest van het Oosten under the baton of David Parry never put a foot wrong with the delicate solo phrases from woodwind counterbalanced by the frequent dramatic blasts from brass and percussion.

I am all for trying new things, of approaching operas, plays or whatever with new and fresh ideas. I am quite happy with modern dress interpretations and coming at a story from a new and untried angle. As I said, their last two productions, La Traviata in particular, were very inventive and highly successful – in fact the Verdi was one of the best I have seen, providing clever, never-thought-of insights into Violetta’s back-story. With all innovation and attempts at originality there is, of course, risk involved. You win some and you lose some.     Michael Hasted     Rotterdam, 31st October 2018