The Icelandic Opera premiered Puccini’s Tosca last weekend to a near-capacity audience. A story of love, betrayal, and political intrigue, Tosca has become one of the most performed operas since its premiere in 1900. This is the Icelandic company’s third production of the opera and the first to be staged in Harpa Concert Hall. Australian Director Greg Eldridge brought together a cast and crew of locals and foreigners in this ambitious and significant production.
Tosca is set in Rome in 1800, where the Kingdom of Naples is struggling to maintain control of the city as Napoleon invades Italy. The title character, opera singer Tosca, is exploited by Chief of Police Scarpia in order to find the escaped political prisoner Angelotti, who has been hidden by Tosca’s lover, the painter Cavaradossi.
A story of political upheaval and power imbalances, Tosca proves a poignant choice in the current international climate. Locally, the opera is also relevant, as Iceland faces an election this week following a government collapse instigated by scandal. Tosca’s personal journey, characterized by overcoming exploitation and abuse at the hands of men in power has parallels in local and international movements #höfumhátt and #metoo, both meant to draw attention to sexual harassment faced by women.
A melodrama which contains torture, murder, and suicide, Tosca is a dramatically challenging work. English soprano Claire Rutter shone in the title role, delivering a subtle performance and a truly touching and masterful “Vissi d’arte.” Icelanders Kristján Jóhannsson’s and Ólafur Kjartan Sigurðarson’s interpretations of the roles of Cavaradossi and Scarpia, respectively, were well-received by the audience, though Kristján’s weighty vocal style was not the best foil for Rutter’s nuanced approach.
In a quintessentially Icelandic casting decision, Sigurbjartur Sturla Atlason, better known as hip-hop artist Sturla Atlas, sung the role of shepherd. The shepherd’s aria “Io de’ sospiri” is meant to be a folk song and Sturla’s unpolished voice lent the role authenticity and charm.
Natalia Stewart’s costume design, as well as set pieces and props, had a World War II era feel. In the first act, Tosca is followed into the church by paparazzi with cameras from the period. In the second act, she listens to Cavaradossi’s torture through an intercom on Scarpia’s desk. Choices like these provided a lens for the viewer’s own perception of suffering as it is mediated through technology.
The music of Tosca is often praised for its dramatic qualities as well as its realism, featuring the sounds of bells, cannons, and organ. Young conductor Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason skilfully coordinated these elements along with the choir and orchestra in his debut with the company.
One of the greatest challenges the Icelandic Opera faces is staging; Harpa was not built for staged productions (the company intended to build their own space, a plan thwarted by the banking collapse). Set designer Alison Cummins used the height of the stage to its fullest with imposing columns and a large stained glass panel, evoking the monumental Roman setting. The overall effect, however, was somewhat cramped. A more minimal approach may have perhaps given the action and the music more space.
Be prepared for two long intermissions (20 and 25 minutes), which are needed to change the set between acts. The premiere ended nearly 40 minutes later than advertised. Harpa size does, however, have benefits for the audience: there is no bad seat, for eyes or ears. Opera lovers will also be happy to know surtitles are provided in both Icelandic and English.
This production is the Icelandic Opera’s 85th since its founding in 1978. Until 2011, its productions were staged in a former movie theatre. To be able to put together a huge production like Tosca less than 40 years later is an incredible achievement. How the Icelandic Opera continues to navigate the double responsibility of showcasing classics and new work, while supporting emerging artists in the field, will certainly prove interesting.