Tosca, Grand Theatre, Leeds

The power and the glory
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The Independent Culture

This reviewer should come clean. As far as Tosca is concerned, I belong to the "shabby little shocker'' school of thought. Puccini's attitude to human suffering seems to me crude and exploitative, and nowhere more so than in this nasty melodrama. So I approached the opening night of Opera North's new season more as a duty than a pleasure. Tosca is a mainstay of the season for several companies, but Christopher Alden's wholly serious and hugely powerful new production is unlikely to be bettered.

Alden sets the opera in contemporary Italy, and treats it as a lesson in the habitual ruthless-ness and casual brutality of modern state power. This involves taking a few liberties with the narrative, but the gain is that the story is dragged out of the comfortable never-never land of Late Romanticism and placed in our time, when torture and murder are the stock- in-trade of many states. The results are suitably shocking.

Charles Edwards's evocative permanent set is of a run-down church vestry, full of ecclesiastical clutter, but with huge "Forza Italia" posters plastered on the walls. A confessional serves as the hiding-place for the political fugitive Angelotti (Clive Bayley), and later as the torture chamber for Cavaradossi.

It is presided over by the formidable Sacristan of Henry Waddington, surly and dirty, and, in Act Three, a mean-spirited gaoler. Come the Te Deum at the end of Act One, he sells lottery tickets to the congregation. Most of the time, during the interrogation and torture, he watches telly in his glass booth at the left of the stage.

Indifference to suffering and cruelty is a keynote of this production. While Cavaradossi is being tortured, Scarpia lounges in a battered armchair, his side-kicks read or doze, and a complicit judge reads a newspaper. At the beginning of Act Three, Angelotti's corpse is lugged in and hung up on a coat-hook. Given the setting, Tosco cannot leap to her death: she becomes another victim of Sciarrone (Mark Ashmore), Scarpia's chilling hit-man.

The most extraordinary performance in this tightly conceived production comes from a newcomer, Robert McFarland, as Scarpia. Looking as worn and scruffy as the TV detective Columbo, he is clearly a bit of a slob – his supper is a take-away pizza. Far from exuding stagey menace, he spends his time slumped in his chair, drinking heavily, and only roused to action as he prepares his sexual assault on Tosca. It is a superb, original characterisation, powerfully sung.

Neither Rafael Rojas (Cavaradossi) nor Nina Pavlovski (Tosca) have especially beautiful voices, but Pavlovski had plenty of power and passion, even if some of her words failed to carry. Rojas, too, sang and acted with commitment, and his voice has the authentic Latin ring. At his brief moment of exultation in Act Two he tore down a "Forza" poster, for which he was rewarded with punches and kicks from Scarpia's agents.

Steven Sloane conducted a gripping performance, allowing for one or two unduly slow tempi, and the orchestra played marvellously for him. But nine Toscas is all the opera we shall hear from the company's music director in the coming season; a great talent wasted. Still, this is one of the best things Opera North has ever done.

To 28 Sept (0113 222 6222). Then on tour to Nottingham, Hull, Salford and Newcastle, returning to Leeds on 20 Nov

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