National Theatre presents a new staging of Tosca

The classic opera is back with an updated but subtle production

The new production of Giacomo Puccini's classic opera Tosca resets the action to the 1920s. The staging by French director Arnaud Bernard is on the subtle side, letting the music stand front and center without too many distractions such as video projections or lasers. This should please purists, while people who have become accustomed to flash-bang productions might find it a bit minimalist.

The stage action starts long before the first musical cue. The curtain rises a good 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled start time, and petty bureaucrats in uniforms can be seen shuffling papers. This eventually leads to a pantomime of the incident that sparks the opera's action, a thriller romance about a singer, a painter, an escaped political prisoner and a police chief.

The set is simple and versatile. The office scene soon changes to a street scene, with the desks quickly rolled offstage and oversized cutouts of architectural sketches are wheeled into their place to suggest some monuments. The two-level set by French stage designer Camille Dugas and costumes by director Arnaud Bernard have a muted color scheme, which emphasize the few moments of bloodshed. More color are introduced for the end, to liven things up a bit.

The stage often has quite a few characters, but it is never cluttered. This is sometimes a problem in Czech productions, which can resemble traffic jams of singers, dancers and props.

German conductor Andreas Sebastian Weiser led the orchestra for the premiere, and there were no real surprises in the rendition. Weiser took over as music director of the State Opera in Prague in September 2016. The physical building of the State Opera is currently closed for renovations, but the program will continue in other venues.

Tosca is the first opera premiere for Weiser as the State Opera's music director. “This is a wonderful work. Puccini composed beautiful and dramatic music that is full of the deepest emotions. The current concept of director Arnaud Bernaud is also very interesting and logical. I hope that people come to see the opera performances with curiosity,” he said in a press release.

The main roles are performed by Barbara Haveman and Anda-Louise Bogza in the role of Tosca, Peter Berger and Valter Borin as Mario Cavaradossi, and Francesco Landolfiniho and Jiří Sulženko as Scarpia.

Bogza, who sang the title role at the premiere, commented that this opera's success relies heavily on the singers' skills. “The role itself is very dramatic, which makes an extraordinary space for expression. Opera singers must have a charismatic voice that captivates the audience. Only then can there be a connection between the performers on stage and the audience,” she said.

She also noted the work's continuing relevance. “It is interesting that even the world premiere of Tosca, which took place in Rome in 1900, was presented as a comment on the persecution of the security and police forces,” she said.

The current production replaces one that premiered in 1999, which used sets based on those from the 1940s by famed designer Josef Svoboda.

Director Bernard worked with the State Opera previously, directing La traviata in 2006. He stated that he wanted to take Tosca away from the standard motifs and not do a “decorative” job. Instead he wanted to emphasize the tale's sociopolitical elements. “I wanted to create a performance with absolute respect to Puccini. Tosca is a thriller in which the criminal plot is mixed with psychological and emotional elements. I reinforced the theme of Scarpia,” he said, referring to the police chief.

“In particular I wanted to invoke the feelings that we have when people have to live in an environment constantly under pressure from the police forces and persecution for their opinions. It can remind you of the practices of the Communist regime. They are common to all totalitarian regimes,” he added.

The updating of the action from the early 1800s to more modern times, although still almost a century ago, does add some context to what can be a bit of dusty tale.

The opera has become a must-have for most theater programs worldwide, as it does offer several showcase moments for competent singers. This new staging does just that, providing a chance for the singers to show their skills on, for the most part, an uncluttered stage.

One drawback is the current production has two lengthy intermissions, which turns the opera into a fairly long evening. The second and third acts are also relatively brief. For technical reasons the stage for the final act is slanted. This angle for the floor wouldn't have worked in the first two acts. But just as the audience get back in and settled, the opera seems to end. If the opera could have been staged with one intermission, it wouldn't have seemed so abrupt. The closing is still strong, with a new look of the set complementing the final dramatic actions.

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