It somehow felt rather like time travel. There we were, my nephew, his partner, Mr Blue-Shirt and I, sitting beneath a warm inky sky in a 3000-seater arena inspired by the Romans, built a couple of decades before the Risorgimento originally as a venue for a game created in the Renaissance, ready to watch an opera set during the Napoleonic Wars that was written at the very start of the 20th century: Tosca.
One of the best-known and best-loved works of the mainstream operatic repertoire – and a personal favourite of all four of us – Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca is a tragic story of love and betrayal, power and politics. In a nutshell, the action unfolds in Rome in June 1800 with the city under French occupation. Floria Tosca, a singer, is the lover of Mario Cavaradossi,a painter. Baron Scarpia, the corrupt Chief of Police who has long lusted after Tosca and who is willing to go to any lengths to have her, suspects Cavaradossi of assisting an escaped political prisoner, Cesare Angelotti. Cavaradossi is soon arrested and tortured for helping Angelotti to flee, so Scarpia tells Tosca that she can end her lover’s suffering if she reveals Angelotti’s whereabouts. Unable to bear her lover’s screams of agony any longer, she eventually succumbs, to Cavaradossi’s later dismay. But Scarpia is still not satisfied as it is Tosca herself that he really wants. So he offers her a deal: if she gives herself to him, Cavaradossi can go free. She is revolted by the prospect but when she hears preparations being made for her lover’s execution, in despair she agrees to submit to him and Scarpia duly instructs his men to carry out a mock execution. As Scarpia forces himself on Tosca, however, she kills him. But her triumph soon turns to horror as Cavaradossi is later executed before her eyes and she realises that Scarpia had double-crossed her. She has no time to mourn her lover’s death, though, as Scarpia’s henchmen are on their way to arrest her for his murder and so she flees. They chase her up onto a parapet and with no means of escape now left to her, she flings herself to her death.
Surrounded by all the Neo-classical architectural splendour of Lo Sferisterio, we were all fully expecting the traditional bicorn hats and muskets, tight bodices and sweeping cloaks. But what the director of this production had in store for us was in fact another leg on our journey through time, for she (yes, she: Valentina Carrasco) had chosen a Hollywood film studio during the 1950s McCarthy era as the setting for her interpretation of the work. In Ms Carrasco’s telling of the story, Scarpia is now a McCarthyite film producer seeking to root out Hollywood ‘Commies’, which Scarpia suspects Angelotti of being, while Cavaradossi is depicted as a communist sympathiser and Tosca as an up-and-coming film actress. A film being made about the occupation of Rome by Napoleon’s forces provides the backdrop for the action between the three main protagonists, and this ‘film within an opera’ device is developed further by various characters using hand-held movie cameras to film key scenes and arias such as Cavaradossi’s torture and Tosca revealing Angelotti’s hiding place, with the images, mostly in close-up, projected in black and white onto the vast wall at the back of the stage.
Scarpia’s predatory advances to Tosca and her resistance to them are handled in the same way, and with the almost painfully tight close-ups of the powerful film producer preying on the vulnerable an desperate young actress, Ms Carrasco brings us another step forward in time by drawing clear parallels to the crimes of Harvey Weinstein and the origins of the ‘Me Too’ movement. And the action takes another step closer to the present day at the deadly climax of the opera which even appears to take on echoes of the recent Alex Baldwin incident – although because this is so recent, it is possible that this may be ‘happy’ coincidence rather than yet more clever adaptation work.
I am pretty open to modern interpretations of classic dramatic works at the best of times as I am drawn to their ability to underscore the universality and timelessness of the themes their plots explore. But none I have seen has come anywhere close to the inventiveness and relevance of this particular re-telling. Locating the ‘film within an opera’ scenes at the sides of the mighty, 40-metre-wide stage while keeping the main action tightly in focus in the centre and then using the imposing back wall as an almost full-size cinema screen turned the practical difficulties of the physical setting into an artistic virtue; and then the McCarthy era setting along with all its more current film industry references transformed what some consider a slightly clichéd, late Victorian melodrama into a genuinely gripping, heart-wrenching and modern thriller, to which Ms Carrasco even managed to add a feminist edge. Who said that opera has to be all about mythical kingdoms, consumptive heroines, and swashbuckling heroes?
As the audience spilled back out onto the pavement at well past midnight, we caught snatches of their conversations on the mild night air, all of them along the same lines.
“Tosca’s voice was stunning…”
“Wasn’t the Scarpia-Weinstein reference clever…”
“The end of Act I gave me good-bumps…”
“Projecting Cavaradossi’s torture onto the back wall really added to the drama…”
“I was so impressed with that orchestra…”
“The whole McCarthy thing worked so well…”
“That baritone made Scarpia such a bastard…”
And there was not a single comment that any of us could disagree with. On the way back home and then over a late supper of cheese and biscuits we shared our favourite moments, googled McCarthy and Un-American Activities hearings, shared our opinions of the quality of the singing and wondered how on earth Valentina Carrasco had come up with such an inspired idea in the first place. And the four of us concluded that it had been by far the most adventurous and captivating production of this classic work that any of us had ever seen – and all in a two-hundred-year-old converted sports stadium in the provincial depths of Le Marche.