It is hot and sticky in Belfast’s Grand Opera House. How could it be otherwise when the air is charged with love, jealousy and lust, and when the State-police bloodhounds are tightening the net on an escaped political prisoner? All this inside the sanctum of a Medieval Roman church. And that’s just Act One of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.

Hats off to French playwright Victorien Sardou, whose 1887 play, La Tosca--a global success-- inspired Puccini to arguably his most emotionally charged operatic score.

Northern Ireland Opera’s staging of Tosca is boldly ambitious. Three distinct set designs trace the action as it unfolds in the Eternal City. Two intervals allow the stagehands to bring about the dramatic architectural shifts required to serve the narrative.

The task facing set designer Niall McKeever and his team was significant, but one clearly relished as the old-world charm of artfully sculpted basilica, giant frescos, wooden scaffolding and the church’s glittering symbolism clash with the stark and soulless architecture of modernity.

There is only one Rome, but oppressive authoritarianism devoid of soul looks much alike anywhere.

Pencil-thin shafts of light pierce the bullet-pocked masonry of the Church Sant’ Andrea della Valle, a poetic reminder, as if one were needed, that war does not discriminate. Ciarán Bagnall’s atmospheric lighting is a subtle protagonist throughout, reflecting and effecting telling transitions in mood.

And how the moods swing in this story! The deep yet insecure love between the artist Mario Cavaradossi (tenor, Peter Auty) and the singer Floria Tosca (soprano, Svetlana Kasyan) is tested to extremes by the machinations of Baron Scarpia (baritone, Brendan Collins). The morally bankrupt police chief’s sexual designs on Tosca unleash a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, with the price paid, by one and all, the very highest.

Puccini’s score is an emotional maelstrom, deeply lyrical and stormy in turn. It demands an empathetic guiding hand, and in guest conductor Eduardo Strausser the Ulster Orchestra is admirably steered in channeling the narrative and emotional nuances of an opera that never idles for a moment. Puccini’s sonic world, replete with repetitive motifs, is immersive. Little wonder that composers from Erich Korngold to John Williams have fallen under his spell.

Impressive, Auty and Kasyan—seasoned campaigners who have interpreted these roles before. Not for nothing do they light a fire in Puccini’s stunning duets.

Auty, a late leading-role substitute, gives a powerful performance. But it is Kasyan, from her very first notes, who holds the Grand Opera House audience in thrall. Spine-tingling her arias, especially the famous “Vissi d’arte” in Act Two. Such power and color.

Despite the opera’s ever darker spiral towards its tragic denouement—a breathless sequence of betrayal, torture, murder, execution and suicide—the musical climax arguably comes much earlier, at the end of Act One, when Scarpia cruelly exploits Tosca’s jealousy.

Collins’ villainous Scarpia is a menacing yet stylish cross between El Duce and Mad Max. He delivers a potent “Va, Tosca, ” his booming baritone framed by chiming bells, somber organ, and the combined might of the NI Opera Chorus and the Belfast Philharmonic Choir, who incarnate the faithful in a moving “Te Deum.” This is opera at its most seductive.

Of the supporting cast, baritone Niall Anderson as the harried sacristan stands out, bringing an element of comic relief. Notable too, the costumes of Gillian Lennox, whose regal creations for Kasyan light up the stage.

In a time of political unrest and war—with all its attendant barbarities—Tosca still touches modern nerves. When Scarpia boasts that “violent conquest has stronger relish than the soft surrender…” the modern roll call of the high-powered who have sexually preyed on the weak and defenceless springs to mind. As Tosca stands over the body of Scarpia, bitterly intoning “Die! Die! “Die!” the act of murder feels more like poetic justice.

This compelling staging of Tosca, NI Opera’s biggest production to date under Artistic Director Cameron Menzies, is one to cherish. As ever, the leads receive the adulation, but this is an ensemble triumph of virtuosity, passion and vision.

Photo credit: Philip Magowan