Tosca

Giacomo Puccini, in a new English version by Adam Spreadbury-Maher, after Victorien Sardou, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

OperaUpClose

Soho Theatre

From 14 August 2013 to 15 September 2013

Review by Philip Fisher

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Adam Spreadbury-Maher has created a wonderful brand with OperaUpClose, the company's La Bohème directed by Robin Norton-Hale delighting audiences across London and winning multiple awards.

This enterprising adapter / director's productions set out to popularise an art form that is generally perceived to be stuffy but never compromise on singing standards. Pleasingly, while the drama remains intact, this company is never shy of introducing humorous interpretations wherever the situation permits.

Tosca is the latest opera to reach the West End, after a successful run at the King's Head last year.

The plot has been completely re-thought, updating the tragedy to East Germany in October 1989 and using slangy, contemporary English for the libretto.

The opening scenes are watched over by the sinister visages of Lenin and Honecker. While this makes sense in the context of a Stasi officer's lair, it says much about that benighted country that even an artist's workshop is similarly adorned.

That artist is Mario Cavaradossi, given wonderful voice by the magical tenor Gareth Dafydd Morris. The stocky painter, who really does look as if he must play for the Welsh (is that Italian?) international XV at weekends, loyally agrees to shelter an escaped prisoner, even at risk not only to his life but also his passionate love for Floria Tosca.

Demelza Stafford in this role proves her amour's equal, with a powerful soprano that is really beautiful and never lacks for power.

The story turns with the arrival of Scarpia, a Stasi officer whose evil sneer is a perfect introduction to a heart black enough for any opera villain. Francis Church proved to be a considerably stronger actor than his (perfectly competent) compatriots at this opening night performance, with a voice to match.

The tragedy works well in this new version, deaths proliferating even as Honecker's reign ends, with the Wall the next bastion of Communism to go.

This company specialises in pared-down stagings and, rather than an orchestra, relies on a musical trio, though there is a variety of woodwind to complement the piano and cello. In addition to the familiar arias, that iconic song "The Red Flag" also makes an unexpected appearance, replacing the more usual angelus.

In front of the musicians, there is a cast of only five, which requires Tom Stoddart to double as spy Angelotti and Stasi stooge Spoletta.

This works well up to the point where Scarpia angrily asks where the prisoner has gone, the correct answer being a pantomimic "behind you".

Despite the obvious budgetary limitations, this is a rousing 2½ hours featuring some fine singing and entertaining melodrama. It must surely sell out so book soon.