Lyric Opera Production opened its season with the Dublin première of Dvořák’s Rusalka: it closed the season on a more conventional note, with Puccini’s ever-popular opera Tosca. Eschewing the visceral, Vivian Coates, the general and artistic director, gave us a Tosca ticking all the boxes of conventional melodrama: slimy villains, emotional heroines, and noble, principled heroes; all that with some cracking good arias and lush stage design.

Precisely set on 17 June 1800, shortly after Napoleon’s conquest of Northern Italy, Tosca recounts the dramatic outcome of the machinations of the evil Scarpia on the lovers Tosca and Cavaradossi. Though the action is period-specific, the themes of love, lust and political power resonate as much nowadays as then, making this into a compelling theatrical experience.

 The title role demands much of the lead singer: a jealous, passionate beauty, whose piety leads her to lay flowers at the statue of the Virgin Mary and yet who is sufficiently desperate enough to stab a conniving lecher to his death. Naomi Harvey certainly captured the passionate side to her character well, particularly impressing by a powerful, agile upper range. Her aria “Vissi d’arte” had a hauntingly desperate quality to it and received spontaneous applause from the audience. At times however, Harvey seemed ineffectual below a certain pitch and in the more emotive moments a too wide vibrato threatened to destabilize the intonation.

From the start, Michael Wade Lee proved to be a thoroughly convincing Mario Cavaradossi. He combined the ability to sing powerfully, carrying well over the orchestra at their loudest, with great tenderness. His rendition of the celebrated aria “E lucevan le stelle” was a profound, emotional outpouring and – if for no other reason – it was worth going to the opera just to hear him sing this. It was not love alone which motivates the character of Cavaradossi, but his radical political affiliations, and in these too, Lee sang with ringing conviction. Moreover, he demonstrated a fine thespian trait as he strove to convince Tosca of his love in Act I and died convincingly in Act III.

I was disappointed by the lack of menace and meanness in Anooshah Golesorkhi’s Scarpia: he conveyed the notion that he was a rather nice chap bothered by a spot of unpleasantness, rather than a sadistic villain rejoicing in his black-hearted schemes. Although possessing a pleasing baritone voice, he failed to project in the louder orchestral moments which, unlike the torturing of Cavaradossi, was not something that could be done for him by his side-kicks, Spoletta and Sciarrone. Stephen Brown as Spoletta impressed more than Rory Dunne as Sciarrone. The Sacristan, Graeme Danby provided some comic relief in the first Act, while Max O’Neill, aged 13 years old sang sweetly as a “shepherd boy”. The Lyric Opera Chorus and the Palestrina Choir sounded terrific, thoroughly enjoying the drama of the occasion. 

Praise goes to Vivian Coates, both director and designer, who imaginatively reconstructed a prosaic concert platform into a Baroque church for Act I, the sumptuous interior of the Farnese Palace for Act II and the cold roof top of Castel Sant’ Angelo for the final act. I was most impressed by the great attention to detail in his choice of paintings for the first two acts, as I spotted an imitation of a Guido Reno’s Penitent Magdalene in the Church. Sadly from my seating, I could not see what Cavaradossi was painting in Sant’Andrea but it certainly garnered a few laughs as Tosca jealously commented on it.

The costumes were an unusual and not altogether satisfactory mix between the 1930s style and that of the 1800s (those of Cavaradossi, the Sacristan and the priests) when the action of the opera was set. Scarpia’s garb resembled that of a small-time mafia boss, while the sun-glasses of his goon, Spoletta were both distracting and annoyingly anachronistic.

The RTE concert orchestra did a credible job under the baton of David Angus. Angus drew an expressive and soulful sound from the string playing in Act II and there was some intense cello solo playing in Act III. At times, the intonation of the woodwind grated somewhat and there were moments in Act I where the orchestra drowned out Tosca in her lower range. On the whole, the conventional approach worked well and while there many moments which were very moving and still others which retained their power to shock, I would have liked to have seen Lyric Opera Production bringing a fresh approach to what is a very familiar opera.