Such is the power of the Anthony Besch’s “Mussolini production” of Tosca there is now a generation of opera fans in Scotland who would find difficulty in relocating it back to Napoleonic times. I was bowled over by the power of the original production in 1980 and have followed all the tweaks for each of the nine revivals, Besch returning in person to oversee many of them. Updating operas was less common forty years ago, but Besch’s emphasis on the psychological as much as the physical drama is what makes this production so timelessly appealing. This revival under director Jonathan Cocker, with rising star Natalya Romaniw in the title role, packed as powerful a punch as I can remember.

Natalya Romaniw (Tosca) © James Glossop
Natalya Romaniw (Tosca)
© James Glossop

If there was a prize for the most travelled opera sets, Peter Rice’s wonderful and faithful recreation of Rome’s Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo must be a contender as it has visited several continents. The buildings appear strong and solid but the audience view is at an angle in each scene, curiously deepened perspectives drawing us right into the heart of the drama.

In the church we get a snapshot view of the side chapel and Cavaradossi’s artistic platform, but Besch makes the audience join the dots and we imagine Scarpia’s henchmen searching the building and the spectacle at the altar as the Te Deum procession arrives. The slow change from the dark gloomy church to dramatic worship announced with a burst of colour from the clerical robes and Swiss Guard built excitement when set against the fore-stage drama, the sprinkling of holy water and incense adding authenticity with Il Duce himself making an appearance. In a busy scene, Coker has wisely left Besch’s main detail in place, but added ideas with fresh direction for the excellent children’s chorus, and the prominence of Scarpia’s second act prostitute.

Minor roles were particularly well drawn. Paul Carey Jones was a troubled, finely sung Sacristan, trying to stay on the right side of the church and the fast-evolving political situation. Dingle Yandell’s lyrically sung Angelotti made his short-lived mark as the escaped convict and Aled Hall’s menacing Spoletta was almost as dislikeable a character as Scarpia. The main chorus was on robust form offstage in the second act, and at the dramatic finale of the first.

Roland Wood (Scarpia) and the cast of <i>Tosca</i> © James Glossop
Roland Wood (Scarpia) and the cast of Tosca
© James Glossop

No overture to this piece, the big fat Scarpia chords launch us into the drama immediately, underpinned by bass trombone and sock-trembling cimbasso. If Roland Wood’s gravitas was a touch light in the Church, his Scarpia became properly menacing and in bigger voice in the second act, authoritatively directing his henchmen and racking up Cavaradossi’s torture until Tosca breaks. Finally, alone in the room with Tosca in the Farnese Palace with its huge map of Rome on the back wall, he clutches Tosca and sniffs her like a salivating dog, aroused and excited that this woman dares to stand up to the most feared man in Rome.

The opera world has been waiting for Natalya Romaniw’s first Tosca, and this was a genuinely thrilling performance. Romaniw’s voice has a gorgeously burnished lower register where much of the part is set, but opens out seamlessly into a powerful bright top carrying effortlessly over the orchestra going at full tilt. Her big moments in the church with Cavaradossi, “Vissi d’arte” before she murders Scarpia and her declaration of love in the final act were genuinely very moving. She completely inhabited the role, jealously raging at Cavaradossi painting the attractive blond Marchesa Attavanti as Mary Magdalene, but as the violence and menace increased, she grew in stature, terrified and disgusted as she confronted Scarpia yet had the wits to request her safe pass. Backed into a corner and spying a knife, she only had one option and one chance to take it. Gwyn Hughes Jones made a splendid clear-toned Cavaradossi, rising to the occasion in his two big arias and passionate in the love duets with Romaniw.

Natalya Romaniw (Tosca) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Cavaradossi) © James Glossop
Natalya Romaniw (Tosca) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Cavaradossi)
© James Glossop

Stuart Stratford, conducting his first Tosca with the company drew dramatic playing from the orchestra. New audio baffles have appeared in the pit to protect players’ hearing, but it’s a boisterous score and I spotted the harpist (in front of the timpani) with fingers in her ears. The set pieces were delivered thrillingly if momentum was occasionally lost between times, but I liked Stratford’s loose and unpredictable approach which gave the music and singers time to breathe and enjoyed watching him conduct the murder music with gusto and sweeping arms.

The audience at this sold-out performance of Tosca was a healthy range of ages, many I suspect seeing the opera for the first time. Going by the thunderous reception at the end, it will make a big and lasting impact and, with Romaniw’s Tosca, takes us into 5-star territory.

*****