Cameron Menzies, Northern Ireland Opera’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director, described his production of Puccini’s Tosca as “the biggest undertaking in the history of the company.” He wasn’t wrong. When you get the right team of creative artists and performers, what can be achieved in a tough environment is something that just blows one away. What Menzies has done here is remarkable for its ambition, staging, production and casting.

Svetlana Kasyan (Tosca)
© Neil Harrison

In this new production at the Grand Opera House Belfast, Menzies displays modesty, inventiveness and passion to bring the story to life with simplicity. Using timeless costumes, he keeps an authenticity to Puccini's opera, but with a hint of the contemporary.

One of the greatest successes was Niall McKeever's set, built around the simplicity of two L-shaped scaffolding frames either side of the stage and a central dom, which in Act 1 depicts the church, returning in Act 3 as a frame for the gallows. In Act 2 the scaffolding remains but centre stage is a torture chamber beneath a dining room. 

The design and quality of Gillian Lennox's costumes was superb. Tosca’s act 1 dress reflected her operatic diva status, while her second act attire was regal. Scarpia’s striped shirt and white waistcoat gave him an air of intimidation, but not as much as the leather outfits of his agents, with what Menzies’s describes as “nods to fascism”. 

Brendan Collins (Scarpia) and Svetlana Kasyan (Tosca)
© Neil Harrison

Ciaran Bagnall's lighting is intelligent and enhances the moods on stage, at times radiantly warm in the church, but the colours cooling on Scarpia’s arrival. This theme was carried through the second act too. 

In the title role, Svetlana Kasyan filled the auditorium with her authoritative stage presence; a glance alone was able to convey Tosca’s character. Brendan Collins made his role debut as Scarpia with style. Strongly projecting his sonorous baritone, he gave an emotionally intense, compelling performance. 

Peter Auty (Cavaradossi) and Niall Anderson (Sacristan)
© Neil Harrison

In the role of Cavaradossi was Peter Auty got off to an uncertain start. Vulnerability became very much part of his characterisation and he peaked in “E lucevan le stelle”. Baritone Niall Anderson brought humour to the Sacristan, with the facial expressions and voice to make this small role memorable. 

Aaron O’Hare took the part of Spoletta, Connor Campbell as Sciarrone and Paul McQuillan as the Jailer completed the cast, commendably sung. The Belfast Philharmonic Choir was superb. Although their role is relatively small, the impact they made in the Te Deum was impressive, filling the stage with musical punch to intensify the drama. 

Te Deum, Act 1
© Neil Harrison

Conducting the Ulster Orchestra was Eduardo Strausser, who allowed Puccini's music to bloom naturally. Tempi were appropriate throughout, permitting the beauty of the voices to radiate above the complex musical textures. The modest body of strings were flawless, however they were insufficiently large enough to bring opulence to the opera's grander orchestral moments. 

Menzies vision is a strong one, executed with sophistication and eloquence, making this one of NIO's finest productions, with no gimmicks or tricks, just stripping back to the basics of music and singing. Puccini’s score sang for itself.