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Tosca review at Hackney Empire, London – ‘a spirited production’

Paula Sides and Craig Smith in Tosca at Hackney Empire, London. Photo: Richard Hubert-Smith

One of the themes of Puccini’s masterwork, Tosca, is the powerlessness of an ordinary person who gets caught up in the machinery of an oppressive society. Rage against the machine, as Cavaradossi does in trying to shelter his political friend Angelotti, and you will pay the price, as he and his beloved Tosca do at the hands of the police chief Scarpia.

The English Touring Opera’s new Tosca, which begins its three-month national tour at the Hackney Empire, is an accomplished first operatic outing for theatre director Blanche McIntyre. The set and costume designs (by Florence de Mare) suggest Goya’s Napoleonic Spain more than the 18th-century Rome of the opera. There’s a Iberian flavour to the costumes too but most striking is the Moorish-patterned walkway that slashes diagonally across the stage.

Tosca here is not the usual grand diva but instead an impulsive, and all-to-soon disillusioned, naïf, well portrayed by Paula Sides, who is spellbinding in the great Vissi d’arte aria. Alexander James Edwards as Cavaradossi offers a warm and well-rounded sound. Craig Smith as Scarpia is vocally polished, but with his severe bearing, his interactions with Tosca suggest a desire for conquest rather than passion.

This central trio is well-supported by secondary characters such as Aled Hall’s menacing Spoletta. Good work also from the ETO orchestra strings, and from the chorus, who sing a Te Deum as Scarpia brutally plots against his enemies – one of many dramatic contrasts between spiritual aspiration and grasping humanity that Puccini places into his score.

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A spirited, Spanish-tinged production from first-time opera director Blanche McIntyre