The plight of political prisoners is hardly a new phenomenon but neither, alas, is the notion of a corrupt police force. In this aspect alone Edward Dick’s masterful updating of Tosca has gained deepened relevance since it was first seen in 2018, with the sick heart of Puccini's ruthless, opportunistic Baron Scarpia uncomfortably redolent of the institutionalised problems of today’s UK enforcement agencies.

Giselle Allen (Tosca) and Robert Hayward (Scarpia)
© James Glossop

The 2023 revival arrives ready-polished, a diamond of brilliant detail and searing imagery. This is unsurprising given that so many cast members are veterans of the first incarnation, although it’s Opera North’s music director Garry Walker who grabs the ear with an interpretation of urgency and incipient horror. He begins with a shock as an abrupt blackout trip-wires Puccini’s baleful ‘Scarpia’ motif in a crash of sound, and the tension never lessens thereafter.

Giselle Allen has returned to the title role and reminds us yet again that she is one of the most talented and adaptable sopranos to grace these islands. London audiences rarely glimpse this passionate, humane artist at work, but that’s their loss and it levels up the assets for everyone else. Her Floria Tosca dominates the opera from diva to diver; when she’s onstage it’s hard to notice anyone else. “Vissi d’arte” is sung as it is staged – with disarming simplicity – and the sincerity of her text shines through. “I lived for my art... and I never did harm to a living soul.” Well, not yet at any rate.

Giselle Allen (Tosca) and Mykhailo Malafii (Cavaradossi)
© James Glossop

As her antagonist, Robert Hayward is likewise in prime form. His voice is more lyrical than it can sometimes be, the notes more centred, but on opening night that Iago-like venom was ever-present. He projected Scarpia's predatory nature through a combination of stillness and sudden movement, and if his attempted seduction of Tosca seemed too urbane for a man used to taking whatever he wants (his courteous pouring of wine into glasses felt a touch cosy) that’s because elsewhere he seethed with evil.

Robert Hayward (Scarpia) and Giselle Allen (Tosca)
© James Glossop

Allen and Hayward belonged to a trio of Opera North stalwarts who launched this production four years ago. Tragically, their colleague Rafael Rojas died last year so a new Cavaradossi has been recruited for 2023. Ukrainian tenor Mykhailo Malafii is the real deal, vocally heroic and heart-rending in equal measure, with an authentic Puccinian robustness to his delivery of the character’s set-piece arias. His physical acting is not yet on a par with his musicality but he has time to find his way into the role as Opera North’s tour progresses through to April.

The supporting cast is exceptionally distinguished, with Callum Thorpe notably fine as a desperate Angelotti and Matthew Stiff’s bumptious Sacristan proving that careless talk costs lives. At the start of Act 3, the young soprano Bella Blood sat dreamily in the centre of a toppled church cupola and sang the Shepherd Boy music exquisitely – inadvertently presaging the production’s final coup de théâtre in the process. Pity.

Bella Blood (Shepherd Boy) and Mykhailo Malafii (Cavaradossi)
© James Glossop

The director and his designer, Tom Scutt, alternate between realistic and expressionistic images in their creation of grim spectacle, but they’re not afraid of dark humour either. There is a moment of delicious horror after Scarpia’s demise that’s set perfectly to a specific chord in Puccini’s orchestration, while in Act 3 the use of a massed arc of ecclesiastical candles to evoke a distant cityscape is inspired. Edward Dick is a talent to treasure and the opera world should hold him fiercely to its bosom. 

****1