Neuköllner Oper’s adaptation of Puccini’s popular masterpiece is an ingenious one. Living up to its aspirations as trendsetters, the setting conjured by the group places the action amid the riots that shook up Genoa in July 2001, raising interesting questions on the intersection of arts and politics.

Hrund Ósk Árnadóttir (Tosca) and Amadeu Tasca (Scarpia) © Matthias Heyde
Hrund Ósk Árnadóttir (Tosca) and Amadeu Tasca (Scarpia)
© Matthias Heyde

In a production for small audiences (roughly 60 seats for each performance), the NO brings together an array of resources to tell Puccini’s story. Everything is brought to a minimal but effective dimension, including the source material – the performance clocks in at 90 minutes without intermission – reduced set and costumes, instrumentation (piano and cello, and occasional pre-recorded music), and video projection, all enhance the convincing performance by the cast. Icelandic soprano Hrund Ósk Árnadóttir (Tosca), Brazilians Gustavo Eda (Cavaradossi) and Amadeu Tasca (Scarpia) were joined by Nina Schwartz as Director, and Daniel Albrecht as Cellist.

We begin at the rehearsal for the scene where Tosca meets Cavaradossi. The initial conflict of the Puccini’s opera – Tosca’s jealousy over his painting of the Marchesa Attavanti – is replaced by a confrontation in artistic ambitions: where Cavaradossi has painted Freiheit, Gleichheit, Brüderlichkeit (freedom, equality, fraternity), Tosca overpaints Freizeit, Geilheit, Bürgerlichkeit (leisure, lust, bourgeoisie).

Mid-scene, a phone call announces an important actor, desired for the role of Angelotti, declined to participate in the project. The Director throws a fit about the seriousness of art (questioning how can she work when no-one else will), interrupting the rehearsal. The “actors” look tired – it’s clear this is not the first time this has happened, and they can barely stand the temperamental reactions of the Director who, after letting off some steam, decides to have the opera take place during the G8 summit. Scarpia returns as a riot-geared police officer, and Cavaradossi becomes a Black Bloc for whose life Tosca will plead.

Meta-voice is one of the great achievements here, unveiling the inner workings of professional life in theatres with its somewhat abusive work relations and constant changes of direction. We also contemplate on a prominent issue in contemporary theatrical arts: should art reflect reality, or be “real”? The Director is presented as extremely engaged albeit somewhat dreamy, yearning to make art which will shake the foundations of society but failing to convince her cast, who are just clocking hours.

Gustavo Eda (Cavaradossi), Hrund Ósk Árnadóttir (Tosca) and Amadeu Tasca (Scarpia) © Matthias Heyde
Gustavo Eda (Cavaradossi), Hrund Ósk Árnadóttir (Tosca) and Amadeu Tasca (Scarpia)
© Matthias Heyde

Video is cleverly used to nudge the audience towards the big picture: G8 world leaders walking on the beach as Cavaradossi and Scarpia meet in prison; police raids while Tosca gives up Angelotti’s hideout. Occasionally, a text projected on the back of an upright piano provides further context to the events. Images are blown-up, pixelated, hinting at current mobile phone and dashcam videos of police brutality.

The drama unfolded around Tasca’s excellent performance. Clearly the more experienced actor among the singers, he flowed easily between the in- and out-of-character scenes, even though his villain was somewhat burlesque – without any real distance between audience and actors, his eyes showed he didn’t incarnate Scarpia’s malice. Árnadóttir’s performance as a singer was superb, and her acting as Tosca was impressive. Her interpretation of the singer in the off-character scenes was less convincing though, and it remained unclear if this was a deliberate choice. Eda’s singing also draws praise, especially in the confrontation between Cavaradossi and Scarpia.

On the other hand, the meta-drama was continuously taken over by Schwartz’s great delivery as the maniacal Director, whose increasingly more convoluted ideas risk compromising the play. Wishing to make art perfectly overlaid to social-political events, she is an analogy to the parable of the Chinese emperor of Qin. Intent on having a detailed map of his domains, he requested his cartographers to produce increasingly more detailed maps, eventually asking for a chart on 1:1 scale, to which his subjects reply: “If you want to see your kingdom in such detail, your majesty, then go see it, and not a map of it.” That is precisely what the Director does. Consumed by politics, she decides to travel to Genoa, leaving the project’s end scene to the care of Albrecht’s Cellist – who, we are told, was actually present during the 2001 events – bringing about an ending more fitting to tradition (as cued by orchestral music).

In its twists and turns, NO’s production greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. In trying to produce a 1:1 map of art and politics, the meta-content becomes a bit confusing, perhaps too open to interpretation in key issues. Is it music who dies in the clash with “real” life? Are we meant to sympathise with these characters, or with the actors playing them? Are we to ponder on the real-life events of 2001 through the piece, or are they simply a backdrop for this production? Still, as we are invited to contemplate it, this experience brings a fresh take on opera, renewing and refreshing it for our current times.