Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s OperaUpClose hit the National headlines with their storming production of Puccini’s La Boheme last year following its revolutionary transfer from the King’s Head to the Soho Theatre. The tour that followed cemented the company as one to watch, especially in the wake of their Olivier Award for the same production.
Their follow-up production at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre is a revival of their 2012 production of Puccini’s Tosca. In true OperaUpClose style, they take their world-class singers and plant them in a more contemporary and immediate setting. Here we leave 1800’s Rome threatened by Napoleon’s invasion and we are transported to East Berlin in 1989.
This production steps up to the plate from an operatic point of view by producing a high standard both vocally and musically. The score is brought to life simply and beautifully with the use of piano, clarinet and cello under the Musical Directorship of Elspeth Wilkes. The cast embrace the score and all command the stage vocally with Spreadbury-Maher’s English language translation.
What doesn’t gel is the concept and its execution. Aside from the German map on stage and the odd token references to Germany in the script, this production could be set anywhere. Stylistically there is nothing to tie down the time they have chosen. Costume design and set design are both scrappy and go further towards undermining the concept. More is needed than just 1980’s European rock pre-show music and a comic German accent announcing the interval.
Where the voices are uniformly excellent, the performances are also varied. Demelza Stafford’s Tosca displays a powerhouse voice, but she doesn’t have the brashness and confidence physically as she has vocally. The same could be said for Edward Hughes’s Carvaradossi. Whilst their scenes together sound full of passion and high stakes, together they often look self-conscious and a little clumsy.
James Harrison’s Scarpia is full of Machiavellian glee and rises to the occasion taking command of every scene he is in, taking full advantage of his status as the bad guy and owning one of the evenings most enjoyable moments post-interval before the new act begins.
Steven East is a wonderful performer, both vocally and physically at ease on stage. His double casting as both caretaker and Spoletta may cause confusion but quibble aside, he is a delight to watch.
When a production like La Boheme makes such an impact, following it up is always a tricky proposition. By weighing itself down with a concept that doesn’t stand alone, and not defining characterisation, this Tosca doesn’t have the high stakes and drama that Puccini’s original demands.