Saturday, 24 September 2011

Another night at the opera: Tosca at The Grange

A week ago I met up with friends M--- and S---. First we had lunch in Winchester. Here's a picture of myself by Winchester Cathedral:

You can see that it was a very sunny day. We lunched pleasantly in the back garden at The Bishop on the Bridge, a pub right on the riverside, and then drove out to The Grange for the evening's operatic performance. No marquee was provided for picnicking this time. We just put some thick blankets on the ground, and drank white wine:

All around us other people did much the same, or sat on the stone steps:

A great atmosphere, even if this was a distinctly less formal occasion than in the summer. 'Smart casual' was the official dress code for this late-in-the-season production, and so most women avoided very long dresses and the regalia that goes with them, and dressed more for a stylish outing to Oxford Street. Similarly the men mostly wore smart jackets and nice trousers, but not DJs and bow ties. Actually not many wore ties at all. I regretted that. I think that if a man is going to don a decent jacket, then a tie is needed, and not that untidy open-necked look. Perhaps it's just my personal prejudice, but I'd like to see a bit more formality return to men's attire. (Which of course would create more opportunities for women to wear really nice things too!)

Anyway, a bit before 6.00pm we found our seats. Puccini's Tosca is one of his most popular works. It's a simple story to follow. It's set in Rome. A political prisoner escapes, and seeks refuge in a church where a mural painter (Cavaradossi) with the same anti-government sympathies arranges a hiding place for him - at his villa. Cavaradossi loves a famous singer, Floria Tosca, who is a jealous diva. The corrupt and manipulative chief of police, Scarpia, suspecting Cavaradossi, spins her a yarn about the painter's dalliances, and thus tricks her into saying where the villa is. He despatches his men there. They don't find the fugitive but arrest the painter, bring him back to the castle that is Scarpia's HQ, and question him severely. Scarpia then summons Tosca, and offers to desist with the torture of her lover, stage only a mock execution of him, and let them escape with a letter guaranteeing a safe passage out of Italy. In return, however, she must betray the fugitive, and submit to Scarpia's cynical desire for her. Cue for major aria from her (Visse d'arte). Further cries of pain from Cavaradossi offstage compel her to reveal what she knows. Scarpia then writes the letter, gives instructions to his men about the mock execution, and prepares to make vile love to the extremely unwilling Tosca. But she finds a knife, stabs him to death, and gets away. Cut to Cavaradossi, about to face the firing squad. Another major aria, from him this time (E lucevan le stelle). The squad shoots, and Cavaradossi dies as Scarpia always intended. Enter Tosca, who discovers her murdered lover. Enter the police, who have just discovered the murdered Scarpia. Exit Tosca over the parapet of the castle, falling to her death to evade the officers. All through, dramatic music and powerful singing. Moving and most satisfying!

I was of course already familiar with the two main arias from CDs, but not having seen the opera performed live before, I hadn't felt their full effect. I was very impressed.

The original opera was set in Rome in 1800, with Napoleon in the background. This production rather cleverly set the action in the fascist Italy of the late 1930s, which allowed some of the menace of those times to colour the plot. It's perfectly clear from the outset that this can't end happily, and that the regime (epitomised by the excellently-played - and sung - figure of Scarpia) will be the doom of them all.

I had my reservations about Tosca knifing Scarpia in order to escape with Cavaradossi. He wasn't actually going to kill her, and it seemed too drastic a solution to her predicament. But on the other hand, she clearly had no time to think of a better plan. And no doubt a chief of police in a fascist regime richly deserved to die anyway. I did however wonder whether, if Tosca and her lover had got away, what she (with her firey jealousy) might do if she ever truly suspected him of infidelity. Another stabbing? Who can say?

Just three more shots: first the three of us (our shoes anyway), then our shadows, and finally the silhouettes of opera-goers during one of the breaks:

Then it was back in Fiona to M---'s for a late supper. I got back to the caravan around 1.00am. But what a good day out!


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