The return of the diving diva

A revamped Scottish Opera takes the plunge with a production of Tosca set in Fascist Italy
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The Independent Culture

Any opera buff knows the tale of Tosca's bouncing soprano. The story goes that a stage manager replaced the crash mat that cushions the heroine's suicidal plunge from the castle walls with a trampoline; the audience saw the stout soprano plunge to her death - and then reappear above the parapet another two or three times.

Aidan Lang, the director of Scottish Opera's latest production of Puccini's masterpiece, promises there'll be no repeat. "There's a crash mat. And it's a higher jump than has been done before," he says. "It's quite daunting." Fingers crossed for opening night, then.

Airborne divas aside, this production has challenged the creative team. The 2004 Tosca is a revival of the classic 1980 Anthony Besch production, which transposed Puccini's drama to Fascist Italy of the 1930s. "It's a version that has been revered by performers and critics alike," Lang says. "It is a classic production, and you can see Anthony's footprints all over it. It is clear; it shows consummate stage sense. What I tried to do was to be totally faithful to the spirit of what he did, while finding singers who could inhabit the environment and make it live for them."

Scottish Opera has given Lang a generous rehearsal period in which to let his singers move into this production. In total, there has been a six-week stretch in which to breathe life into this Tosca, which contrasts markedly with those reputed instances where companies have put on the opera in 48 hours. Directors can do whirlwind revivals because the opera is performed so frequently by so many companies. There are artists who know these roles inside out. Carol Neblett, Lang reveals, claims to have sung the Tosca role 128 times.

Given the canonical status of this work, staleness and complacency can be a problem, the director concedes. "The psychology of this drama can seem obvious. But these singers are particularly intelligent. We have people who are responsive to suggestions, and we can work in fine detail. It's been a very happy rehearsal period."

Indeed, the director has encouraged his stars - Elena Zelenskaya sings Tosca, and John Hudson is Cavaradossi - to re-appraise the work; something he hopes will reap dividends on opening night. "What looks like the emotion on paper... is subtly different."

So, what keeps audiences coming back to see Puccini's political love story? "It's bigger and more dramatic than La Bohème. The great thing about Tosca is how well it is written. But there's a caveat: because of the writing, people can take short cuts. One has to unwind people's experiences, and let them see the subtlety of the drama again," Lang says. Scottish Opera's Tosca should deliver a rich experience - even without the bouncing soprano.

'Tosca', Theatre Royal, Glasgow, from Friday to 27 November; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 30 November to 11 December (0141-243 2439; www.scottishopera.org.uk)

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