Scottish Opera’s final production of the season was a revival of the much-loved 1980 production of Tosca by the late Anthony Besch, redirected here by Jonathan Cocker. Besch was struck by the political parallel between the Napoleonic era of the 1800s and Italy under Mussolini in the 1940s, and he made the bold choice to set this production in 1943. It all works superbly, which is testified not only by this seventh revival for Scottish Opera, but also by the fact that this production has been seen in places as far apart as New Zealand, Spain and the USA.

Scottish Opera's Tosca: Robert Poulton as Scarpia © Mark Hamilton
Scottish Opera's Tosca: Robert Poulton as Scarpia
© Mark Hamilton

Peter Rice’s wonderfully convincing designs transport us to the three actual settings in Rome: the convincing interiors of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and Farnese Palace in particular must strike those new to this production as amazing. The sets still look splendid and fresh back in their Glasgow home after all their worldwide journeys – if there were a prize for most travelled opera set, surely this must be a contender.

It has been fascinating to follow this production over the years. I first saw this in London during the heady days when Scottish Opera toured regularly, and Besch returned to Glasgow when he could to redirect revivals in person. Cocker continues to make slight changes in the staging and lighting, but we lost one of the iconic images of this production, Tosca’s long scarf snaking out the door after her as she steals out of the Farnese Palace at the end of Act II – a lone figure lit in the doorway was not the same somehow. In the very final moment of the opera, after Tosca’s leap, there are a baffling few seconds: in what is apparently an air raid, the soldiers on the battlements of Castel Sant’Angelo all fall down dead as the curtain comes down. The magnificent set piece during the Te Deum in Act I is as stunning as ever: the Cardinal sprinkles holy water, King Victor Emmanuel III and Queen Elena are in attendance, and Scarpia forgets about God and bows to Benito Mussolini who arrives in the very final tableau.

Susannah Glanville, making her Scottish Opera debut, was an elegent Tosca, truly shocked by Scarpia’s bargain for Cavaradossi’s ‘freedom’. Robert Poulton was a truly evil Scarpia dominating the stage and feared by all. The drama at the core of the opera in Act II was very convincing and strongly sung. Tosca sang ‘Vissi d'arte’ lying on an institutional iron bed, which can’t have been easy, and there were a couple of slightly uncomfortable moments – but in general the drama carried the piece.

One of the thrills of this opera is the very beginning. There is no overture and we are straight into the action with the familiar massive Scarpia chords bottomed out with contrabass trombone. Francesco Corti was really enjoying himself in the pit and the band was playing thrillingly. I did get the impression that there was a battle between singers and orchestra throughout, as Corti failed to rein his players in at critical times. Glanville, Poulton and José Ferrero as Cavarodossi had no choice but to sing it loud. David Morrison was a lightly sung Sacristan, but was unfortunately often swamped by the sheer volume of sound. In the quieter moments though, there was some beautiful playing, no more so than the heart-breaking cello quartet in Act III – Corti has his cellos right out in front of him.

All in all, seeing this production again was like meeting an old, much-loved friend. Some changes since our last encounter, as one would expect, but the capacity to move and amaze very much still there. A packed audience, cheering loudly at the final performance at the Theatre Royal before this production tours Scotland, clearly agreed.