One of Opera North’s first productions at Leeds Grand Theatre was Tosca, a year after the company was set up, though the one that I saw was in 2002, when Rafael Rojas was Cavaradossi. He excelled in spite of the fact that the action took place in a kind of sordid, cluttered storeroom, an emphatic verismo touch which detracted from an otherwise strong production. Rojas, a company veteran, is now back in the same role, a slightly older persecuted republican in this new production, but he still excels.

Giselle Allen (Tosca) and Rafael Rojas (Cavaradossi) © Richard Hubert Smith
Giselle Allen (Tosca) and Rafael Rojas (Cavaradossi)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Tom Scutt’s impressive, relatively simple set is uncluttered, the underside of a huge Pantheon-style cupola with a hole in the middle suspended over the stage, which is tipped on its end in Act 3 to enable the hole to be accessed as a place to leap from. Cavaradossi is seen finishing off a section of a new fresco of Mary Magdalene which is later placed in it. Candelabra are out, but small candles are in: banks of them twinkle upstage. The 21st-century references work well against this version of timeless Rome.

Rafael Rojas (Cavaradossi) © Richard Hubert Smith
Rafael Rojas (Cavaradossi)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Director Edward Dick makes it clear that present-day reactionary forces, with church and state united in oppression, along with rampant religious hypocrisy, are very much in mind. The programme includes photographs of an apparently pious Donald Trump standing with eyes downwards in front of a wooden cross, and a crowd of members of the Five Star Movement demonstrating in Rome last year. At the beginning of the Act 1, the escaped political prisoner Angelotti (John Savournin) climbs briskly down a rope to hide in the Attavanti Chapel wearing a drab prisoner’s suit which looks distinctly modern, and Puccini’s ominous opening triad sequence foreshadows tragedy in a dark world of politics which could be in many authoritarian regimes existing before and after Italy at the time of Napoleon. The chapel’s sacristan (Matthew Stiff) wanders around beaming a torch into nooks and crannies, and settles down with takeaway food.

Robert Hayward (Scarpia) and the Chorus of Opera North © Richard Hubert Smith
Robert Hayward (Scarpia) and the Chorus of Opera North
© Richard Hubert Smith

Robert Hayward is a Scarpia is of our time, his “Ha più forte sapore” in Act 2 conveying chillingly the relish of a powerful man who prefers rape. He makes a wonderfully thuggish villain, accompanied by dark-clothed Mafia-like henchman fingering their earpieces, ready for his instructions, and is obviously supported in his position as chief of police by the clerics, because a cardinal blesses him during a flag-waving Te Deum. This is a terrific ensemble piece which includes a number of children – Opera North starts them young.

I heard Rafael Rojas singing Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” as a crowd-pleaser last summer in a gala in Millennium Square in Leeds, and remember it as a little better than his rendering in Act 3 here. He was passionate and clear, but somehow seemed more comfortable in the open air concert, or when singing “Vittoria” in Act 2, about liberty being reborn after hearing of Napoleon’s victory. Giselle Allen displayed considerable acting skills as Tosca, the ready-made diva, from the moment she first appears in fashionable sunglasses to when she stands, silhouetted in the upended cupola’s circular hole, to fall on the backstage mattress. Her fiery, slinky Tosca, sometimes on the edge of hysteria, is truly memorable. “Vissi d’arte” was sung very much from the heart, beginning when she was horizontal in Scarpia’s den of a bedroom. When Scarpia forcesd her to watch her lover being tortured on the screen of his laptop, she was convincingly horrified and alarmed.

Rupert Charlesworth (Spoletta) and Robert Hayward (Scarpia) © Richard Hubert Smith
Rupert Charlesworth (Spoletta) and Robert Hayward (Scarpia)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Conductor Antony Hermus had the Opera North Orchestra well under control, the leitmotifs closely synchronised with stage actions, and all the dramatic qualities brought out. Although Benjamin Britten considered it to be “cheap”, Tosca is a tight package of highly entertaining sensationalism, with plenty of sex, sadism and romance. Audiences continue to value its lovely lurid qualities.