Religious fervour, fanatical rebellion and fatal love. Tosca is lush in plot and subject matter, and Pacific Opera Victoria (POV) has opted for restraint in other aspects of its staging of Puccini’s tragic opera, which ends on April 14.
The result is masterful — never stinting nor superfluous in its level of detail.
For those who’ve grown accustomed to gasping at a different, elaborate set for each act in a POV production, Tosca’s relative sameness of set (designed by Christina Poddubiuk) may come as surprise. For all three acts, fluted, dark columns ensconced in wooden scaffolding surround three sides of the stage. Smaller set features may change — candles and alcoves indicate a church interior; a dining table and settee signal the move to private chambers; empty space exists for the fateful courtyard in Act 3. But though it stays the same, the setting becomes increasingly symbolic. Scaffolding signals restructuring, reflecting the change that is marching towards Rome in the form of Napoleon’s forces in 1800.
The chameleonic setting also means audience attention is focused where it needs to be: on the performers. The action begins immediately in Tosca — a fugitive dashes into a cathedral accompanied by the first of Puccini’s many leitmotifs (recurring musical themes). When the rebel reveals himself to the painter Cavaradossi, an old friend whose sympathies lie with Napoleon, Cavaradossi agrees to hide the fugitive from the anti-Napoleonic police. Cavaradossi’s lover, the opera star Tosca, bursts in, accusing Cavaradossi of entertaining another woman (in fact, it was the fugitive she had heard). Though Cavaradossi calms her and manages to slip away unnoticed to his villa with the fugitive, the chief of police soon arrives and realizes he can use Tosca’s jealousy to get her to unwittingly lead him to the two men he seeks. The trap is laid, and the tragedy that is Tosca unfolds.
David John Pike is chilling as Baron Scarpia, Rome’s lecherous and venal chief of police. Whether he is brandishing a riding crop or pounding a punching bag, each lithe movement drips with perversion. Joni Henson, last seen in Victoria as Senta in The Flying Dutchman, makes the transition from petty prima donna to frantic murderess effortlessly, conveying a shattered rawness in her later arias that one rarely sees in opera.
Director Amiel Gladstone deserves credit for this, his POV debut. Thanks to his considered direction, a pendulous punching bag sways languidly back and forth in the background as the power struggle between Tosca and Scarpia plays out. A red scarf flutters to the ground in the final moment: Tosca’s life force extinguished. The standout visual moments are carefully chosen, and Tosca is stronger for it.
“Do you feel that all things in love are waiting for the sun?” Tosca sings to her Cavaradossi in the dingy light of early morning as he awaits a firing squad. As you await the bright days of summer, don’t forget the beauty of darkness. Give Tosca a try.
Tosca (POV production)
Royal Theatre (805 Broughton St.)
April 4, 6, 10 and 12 at 8 p.m. April 14 at 2:30 p.m. Lectures one hour before showtime.
Student rush tickets $15, subject to availability 45 minutes prior to each performance (otherwise $37.50 to $130 at rmts.bc.ca or 250-386-6121)