There was quite a lot of interest in the Dutch media for this new production of Tosca at Dutch National Opera in the days prior to the premiere. Understandably so, as the house’s last production dates back nearly a quarter of a century (1998 to be precise, with Riccardo Chailly conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra and what I believe was a role debut for Bryn Terfel as Scarpia) making this favourite of the standard repertoire somewhat of a rarity in the Dutch capital. The main message that transpired from press reports and the company’s PR machine and social media accounts was that director Barrie Kosky, inspired by the overall pessimism of the piece and the cinematographic character of Puccini’s music, was going to treat Tosca as a film noir. Admittedly, the libretto contains all the elements of menacing psychology, violence, political intrigue and eroticism that characterise the genre. Those expecting an iconoclast transposition of the action after hearing this message will however find the final results very respectful of the plot, albeit with a modern twist.

Gevorg Hakobyan (Scarpia) and Dutch National Opera Chorus
© Marco Borggreve

There is actually no attempt to reproduce a black and white film noir aesthetic on stage. Sets are perhaps dominated by shades of grey, but the costumes designed by Klaus Brun add bright touches of colours. Of course, the Australian director was never going to try and recreate the iconic Roman landmarks specified in the libretto. In Act 1, the elegant sets imagined by Rufus Didwiszus aren’t therefore specifically recognisable as Sant’Andrea della Valle but they are unmistakably the elegant stone-tiled floor of a church. It all looks very minimalistic – that is until the act concludes with a Te Deum (spoiler alert) featuring a staggering tableau vivant of a triptych of damned souls descending into Hell. This Te Deum is the only visually over-the-top moment in the whole performance. In Act 2, grey tones again dominate, as the Chief of Police’s headquarters aren’t anything that would look like Palazzo Farnese but Scarpia’s own hypermodern kitchen, complete with the latest anthracite kitchen island and seating area, LED-lighting and brutalist-ish bare concrete walls. 

Malin Byström (Tosca) and Gevorg Hakobyan (Scarpia)
© Marco Borggreve

Time will tell if this kitchen will become as famous in opera staging history as the one featured in Robert Carsen’s Falstaff, but it certainly has all the potential: watching Scarpia slicing salmon sashimi, just before the action moves to more gruesome “finger food” is something one will not not easily forget. The monochromic surroundings of this kitchen have the advantage, after the initial but short-lived surprise effect, of forcing the onlooker to concentrate on the action between the characters on stage. Act 2 of Tosca stages essentially the confrontation à huis clos between Tosca and Scarpia and the latter’s sadistic cat-and-mouse play. It is in these psychologically highly-charged interactions where Kosky’s film noir approach is most effective. Every movement, every gesture is precisely choreographed to the music to create a blood-curdling psychological tension that keeps rising until the dramatic climax of Scarpia’s murder, depicted with much graphic violence. Not for the faint-hearted.

Malin Byström (Tosca) and Gevorg Hakobyan (Scarpia)
© Marco Borggreve

This approach benefits from the strong acting as well as the vocal performances of the three principals. As Baron Scarpia, Gevorg Hakobyan’s ideally dark baritone finds the right colours to portray the complex character of a psychopath who can hide his sadistic inner brute beneath a manipulative, suave varnish. Malin Byström is a Tosca I will remember. Although not the typically round Italianate sound with which one associates the role, her timbre is beautifully warm with a rich, radiant, plummy middle, that only slightly thins under pressure at the top. Her technique and especially control of dynamics is impressive. She is also a consummate actress. As much as I love the aria “Vissi d’arte”, I’ve often found dramatically odd the way it suddenly puts on pause the nerve-breaking confrontation which is happening on stage, yet here, she makes it seem totally believable. 

Malin Byström (Tosca) and Joshua Guerrero (Cavaradossi)
© Marco Borggreve

American tenor Joshua Guerrero made a successful debut as Cavaradossi. His is undoubtedly an exciting voice, with a very attractive sunny timbre, although its size may be a bit too small for the role. He uses it well to create a more nuanced portrayal than most, which I found deeply moving. He started “E lucevan le stelle” almost introverted, as befits a tortured man waiting for his execution, only to unveil the full power of his voice in the last verses.

Joshua Guerrero (Cavaradossi)
© Marco Borggreve

In such more intimate moments, chief conductor Lorenzo Viotti reined the sound of his Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra forces to finely detailed chamber-like music, while in others, outbursts of generous and fiery sound flowed from the pit like lava. The good news is that this Tosca is the first of a three-part Puccini cycle from Viotti and Kosky to be produced at Dutch National Opera, with Turandot programmed for 2022-23 and Il trittico for the season after. They should be well worth the wait. 

****1