Staging Tosca in Prague is by no means a standard task. Or at least thatʼs the viewpoint of French director Arnaud Bernard, who has turned Pucciniʼs romantic thriller into a parable about the evils of totalitarianism. In a lengthy essay in the program book, Bernard explains this radical makeover as an attempt to “establish a truly immediate rapport between the work and its audience” – that is, former captives of a communist state. Curiously, this inspiration came not from anything in Czechoslovakia, but from the 2006 German film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), the story of a Stasi agentʼs surveillance of an East German playwright and his actress girlfriend that goes tragically awry.

Barbara Haveman (Tosca) © Patrik Borecký
Barbara Haveman (Tosca)
© Patrik Borecký

Itʼs an awkward grafting from the opening scene, when the audience enters the hall to see the entire stage turned into a grim two-level police station filled with busy uniformed officers. In five wordless minutes before the music starts, victims are dragged in, abused and taken behind closed doors, all to the inexorable bureaucratic rhythm of manual typewriters. One prisoner manages to escape, triggering the music and setting in motion the opera the audience came to see.

Jiří Sulženko (Scarpia) © Patrik Borecký
Jiří Sulženko (Scarpia)
© Patrik Borecký

Every act opens this way – with a silent invented scene at the police station, which remains the framework and centerpiece of action for the entire evening. This is a plausible device for the first act, providing a backstory for Angelotti as he finally staggers through a few simple flats at the front of the stage representing the church where his friend Cavaradossi is painting. But by the third act, when the police are doing their dirty business to the serene sounds of a shepherd boyʼs song and church bells, it feels grating, contrived and overdone, like much of the rest of the production.

Itʼs not enough to give Scarpia a forbidding look and cruel manner. As heʼs professing his love for Tosca at the end of the first act, he has to yank a woman out of a new group of victims and drag her away to rape her. Nor can the audienceʼs imagination be trusted in the second act, when Cavaradossi is being tortured offstage and Tosca is pleading with Scarpia for his life. Bright electrical flashes leave no doubt about what is being done to him. By then, the audience is feeling tortured as well.

Peter Berger (Cavaradossi) and Barbara Haveman (Tosca) © Patrik Borecký
Peter Berger (Cavaradossi) and Barbara Haveman (Tosca)
© Patrik Borecký

The singers and orchestra saved the première. Playing Cavaradossi with passion and flair, Slovak tenor Peter Berger was strong from his opening “Recondita armonia”. Visiting Dutch soprano Barbara Haveman has a remarkable voice, full yet tender, and earned an enthusiastic burst of applause for her soulful “Vissi dʼarte". But Bernard undercut her performance by having her play Tosca as a spoiled ingénue, more bitchy than jealous in her first scene with Cavaradossi, making her subsequent self-sacrifice sem implausible. Longtime National Theater company member Jiří Sulženko, one of the Czech Republicʼs foremost bass singers, scowled and growled his way through Scarpia with consistent menace.

Conductor Andreas Sebastian Weiser did a superb job with the State Opera Orchestra, which is playing in other venues while the State Opera is under reconstruction. The music was vivid and colorful, the playing nuanced and crisp. Weiser did particularly impressive work balancing the sound, not stepping once on the lines of singers who rarely stood still. 

Jiří Sulženko (Scarpia) © Patrik Borecký
Jiří Sulženko (Scarpia)
© Patrik Borecký

Still, that couldnʼt rescue an ugly ending. An awkwardly staged suicide leap by Tosca prompted booing that carried over into the curtain calls, where it became difficult to distinguish the jeering from the cheering. When Sulženko came out he seemed to think the booing was for him, cupped his hand to his ear in disbelief and left the stage, returning reluctantly for a final bow with the cast. In other circumstances it would have been no more than a momentary faux pas, but in this case it captured an undercurrent of ill will that had been building throughout the evening.

In theory, doing a site-specific production reflecting a countryʼs recent history sounds like an inspired idea. But Czech audiences need no reminding of what life was like during four decades of communist occupation, nor a foreigner to lecture them on the evils of a police state. Sometimes art can imitate life too closely.

**111