The master of cinematic thrillers Alfred Hitchcock liked to quote 19th-century French playwright Victorien Sardou’s advice to young writers: “Torture the women!”
Expect plenty of thrills when one of theatre’s brightest creative duos returns to Toronto for the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Tosca by Giacomo Puccini, based on the play by Sardou.
Scottish director Paul Curran and English designer Kevin Knight were responsible for the highlight of last season, a stunning production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. For Tosca expect a lush, period look to frame the intense drama of love, cruelty and betrayal.
“Richard Bradshaw asked us to create an opera that is everything audiences want Tosca to be,” says Knight. “It’ll be exciting, epic.”
The story is familiar to opera-goers; Tosca is one of the most performed operas in the repertoire. Set in Rome during the Napoleonic Wars, the love affair between a painter Cavaradossi (tenor Mikhail Agafonov) and opera singer Tosca (soprano Eszter Sümegi) turns tragic after Cavaradossi helps an old friend Angelotti escape from prison. The chief of police Baron Scarpia (baritone Alan Opie) tortures Cavaradossi and threatens his execution unless Tosca reveals Angelotti’s hiding place. To save Cavaradossi’s life Tosca agrees to sleep with Scarpia. But cruel twists of fate — and a knife — leave all four characters dead by opera’s end.
“Tosca is an absolute prime example of a political psycho-sexual drama,” says Curran. “It’s about sex and politics.
“The first clue comes right at the start when Angelotti enters and identifies himself as a political prisoner. He’s seeking refuge in a church — something that’s been going on for hundreds of years and is still going on. There are stories coming out of Kenya of women and children seeking refuge in churches being burned alive by extreme fanatics.”
In Tosca there is no refuge from the corrupt police. “Scarpia is driven by his desire,” says Curran. “He’s the ultimate fetishist, a collector of sadistic experience.
“GB Shaw called the opera a ‘shabby little shocker,’ and he’s not wrong.”
To bring home the terror, Curran and Knight tackle one of the toughest assignments in opera, to make such a fantastical art form feel real.
“My most frequent advice to singers is, ‘Please, forget you’re in an opera. You’re in a real situation,'” says Curran.
Knight and Curran, both gay, began collaborating eight years ago and have done around 18 shows together — theatre, musicals and opera. In discussing their focus on text and storytelling, both Curran and Knight see themselves as opera outsiders: Knight’s worked in theatre, both rep and West End productions in the UK, while Curran, recently appointed artistic director of Norwegian Opera, was a former dancer with Scottish Ballet. That experience, says Curran, “helps with what I call the third language of the theatre — body language. I get singers to use their bodies in slightly different ways.
“A big challenge is to put singers in clothes so they look like real people in real relationships. They have to look like people who put these clothes on this morning.”
Accentuating the sensuality of the opera, Curran has set the action on a particularly hot summer day in Rome in 1800; the church offers a temporary respite from the heat.
“I like the idea that you can sort of smell them,” says Curran.
“I’ve never done this Empire period before,” says Knight. “That notion that Empire waists are not flattering to women is rubbish. Like any period, you just have to take the elements of late 18th-century fashion and make them work for each body type.
“For men it’s absolutely astounding, the most sexy period ever.”
While excited to be creating a great night out at the theatre, both Curran and Knight wanted to acknowledge the real-life tragedy that infuses this production — the sudden death of COC artistic director Richard Bradshaw last summer. “I’ve known Richard for many years,” says Curran. “He was one of the first artistic directors who actually saw me when I had done nothing. He said he thought I was an interesting person and that was more important than my resumé.
“Every time I walk into this building I miss him terribly.”