Tosca is not a political opera, in the sense that, say, Fidelio is, since it concentrates on the emotional lives and tragedies of its characters more than aiming to make a point. Yet it is hard these days for directors not to exploit its background of authoritarian rule and it is a work that responds well to updating beyond its original Napoleonic milieu: there have been plenty of Scarpias in the intervening two centuries, after all.

Christian Tschelebiew (Scarpia) and Irina Popova (Tosca) © Wil van Iersel
Christian Tschelebiew (Scarpia) and Irina Popova (Tosca)
© Wil van Iersel

Returning to the company with which he was chief director until 2013, Ludger Engels locates Tosca in the present, in a Roman society under an unspecified, brutal rule and one with which, as it becomes ever more apparent, the Church is in collusion. Indeed, this clerical complicity is emphasised figuratively by setting the whole opera in and around a stylised setting of a Baroque Roman church created from blown-up photographs. The religious background is there already, of course: Floria Tosca is a devoutly pious woman, which makes her decision to murder her assailant a deeply troubling one for her – here she drops her crucifix necklace on Scarpia’s desk as she leaves the scene of her crime as if to try and put distance between her faith and her deed.

Engels’ theme takes time to make its presence felt, but by the end of Act I we begin to understand where we’re heading: during the Te Deum, nuns prepare a couple of schoolgirls for Scarpia’s attentions and the Act I curtain falls with them awaiting their fate (Scarpia is nasty enough already, without the need to add paedophilia to his vices, surely). And nuns and priests are both on hand to mop up after Scarpia’s murder (Acts II and III are run together without a break).

Irina Popova (Tosca) and Adriano Graziani (Cavaradossi) © Wil van Iersel
Irina Popova (Tosca) and Adriano Graziani (Cavaradossi)
© Wil van Iersel

Meanwhile, a silent Pope-like figure is also in attendance: present for the Te Deum, visiting the scene of Cavaradossi’s torture and, finally, blessing the execution and providing the weapon with which the Sacristan (adding the roles of gaoler and one-man firing squad to his usual first-act appearance) shoots the painter. Traditionalists will be pleased that Tosca takes her own life the conventional way, as she leaps towards a blinding light at the back of the stage, and a body double of the young Floria is seen slowly spiralling downwards from the flies – a final moment of intense visual drama to match the music.

Christin Vahl’s set had its problems: by creating an enclosed cube placed within what is already a fairly narrow proscenium, space seemed tight and sight-lines were often restricted. Overall, the production may have been a controversial take on Tosca for this first-night audience (there were boos for the director at the curtain calls), but it’s refreshing to see some real ideas explored in an opera that can all too often appear as a simple melodrama.

Christian Tschelebiew (Scarpia) and Chorus © Wil van Iersel
Christian Tschelebiew (Scarpia) and Chorus
© Wil van Iersel

Early on in the performance I feared the singing of the lead roles was not going to equal the audacity of the presentation, but it was more a case of needing to warm up before a full house. Irina Popova’s Tosca may have lost some of the detail of her vocal line to a rather wide vibrato, but she certainly had the range for a role whose lower-tessitura passages can catch out some singers, and her assumption was dramatically rich and telling. Stepping in at short notice owing to the indisposition of the intended Cavaradossi, Welsh tenor Adriano Graziani had no problem making the part his own – there was little indication that he hadn’t been in the production from the beginning of rehearsals, and his agile voice was communicative and lyrical. German bass Christian Tschelebiew perhaps lacked the baleful malevolence in his voice that makes the best Scarpias, but his vivid acting compensated as he conveyed the character’s sexual frustrations that seem to drive his evil. Pawel Lawreszuk’s more sinister than usual Sacristan was eloquently sung, and Jorge Escobar’s Angelotti conveyed fear and determination. Commendation must also go to Amelie Boeven, the accomplished singer of the shepherd’s role in Act III who appeared through the evening as the young Floria, a girl whose only dream was a life on the stage – the embodiment of the sentiments expressed in Tosca’s famous aria “Vissi d’arte”.

A few first-night smudges apart, the Aachen Symphony Orchestra played tirelessly for music director Kazem Abdullah, who explored the power and colour of Puccini’s score while imbuing the flow with authentic Italianate rubato.