The second of three August Sunday afternoon performances of Tosca at the Drayton Arms, Kensington, provided a very pleasurable musical experience. It was performed by a new company, Carmina Priapea, that has been created to meet a dual function; to present standard repertoire opera from an LGBTQI perspective, and to give performers at the start of their careers a chance to take on principal roles that would not normally be available to them.
The Drayton Arms theatre is located on the top floor of the public house and is accessed up a steep and narrow staircase which seemingly suited the staging of this version of Tosca very well. Tosca productions can take on proportions and budgets that would rival any Hollywood ‘blockbuster’ but for those who enjoy stripped back performances, which can demand so much more of the artist and audience alike, this production would surely suit very well. There was little in the way of stage ‘dressing’ and props, and piano accompaniment in place of an orchestra. An English translation of the Italian libretto, was shown on an overhead screen.
Tosca has a its political backdrop the Battle of Marengo. The ‘action’ takes place in three settings in Rome during the afternoon, evening and early morning of the 17th and 18th June 1800; it premiered 14th January 1900. Carmina Priapea’s Tosca is set in the present day with the first Act taking place in a private room of a gay club called ‘The Church’ where a male Tosca is the resident singer, Cavardossi is a painter/decorator and Scarpia is the club’s Head of Security. Even before a note of music had sounded it was apparent that this Tosca was going to be disparate. The theatre has no raised stage, the capacity audience sat in five rows of tiered seating looking down onto the performance space which was strewn with empty drinks cans -
The first few scenes both reassured and challenged; this was to be a Tosca that would be familiar and at the same time very different. Angelotti was the first to appear, as in more standard presentations of the opera, as a fraught fugitive; he searches the trashed room for a key and items left by his sister to aid him in his flight from the city. He then hides himself by going behind the black cloth backdrop that is, in the minimalist theatre set up, the only delineation between front and back stage. The next performer to appear is the Sacristan but here the audience is on much less familiar ground. In this version the Sacristan has been transformed into the clubs cleaner/caretaker. It is apparent that he lives on the premises, even though it is the afternoon he is still in his dressing gown. He tosses a discarded jock strap into the audience, and, in a nod to the minor cleric role of the character in more traditional versions, pulls on an abandoned veil from a Nuns fancy dress outfit. Whilst the sweeping continues another figure silently enters, it is one of the chorus members and he is staggering slightly. Still half asleep perhaps, but still drunk too; he leaves after finding a bottle of spirits not yet completely empty. Cavardossi enters, he has come to work on a portrait he is painting and suddenly the audience are back on familiar ground. After some ‘banter’ between him and the caretaker as to who the portrait looks like the caretaker leaves. Angelotti then reveals himself by coming out of his hiding place now that Cavardossi is alone and the two formulate a quick plan to assist him in his getaway. Whilst they are still talking however Tosca arrives at the door and, finding the door to the room locked, calls out to Cavardossi to let him in; Angelotti hides once more. Tosca has heard voices and jealously demands to know whom his lover has been talking to.
Regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, this Tosca is fiery in his jealously over a suspected infidelity. Cavardossi though is eventually able to assure him that his fears are groundless and they agree to meet later at Cavardossi’s secluded villa. The audience nevertheless have now seen first-
Greg sang as soprano 1 with the chorus for this production of Tosca. Their first appearance comes about half way through the first act entering by a side door just after Angelotti and Cavardossi have left the performance area. They come in with the Sacristan, who reports that news of a defeat inflicted on Napoleon is circulating; tonight will be a time for celebration and prayers of thanks. In more standard productions the chorus for this part of Act One is commonly a group of choir boys. It is never entirely clear what the role of the chorus is within the club but choir boys they are not. They could be club dancers, they are less clothed than any of the other characters so far seen, all wear shorts and skimpy tops; perhaps they have an altogether different function in the establishment. Greg had provided the make up for himself and the rest of the chorus for this scene and seemingly based it on a glam rock type styling. The makeup gave the chorus a somewhat startled appearance, like a dystopian version of the ’lost boys’ and indeed there is a strong impression that this group are lost souls. Their happy revelry, the last ‘light’ episode in the opera, is broken by the arrival of Scarpia one of operas darkest of villains. He is accompanied by his heavies Spoletta and Sciaronni, who perhaps in this context are the club bouncers. The chorus are sent on their way. As they leave Greg’s character playfully strokes Spoletta’s beard, a mock flirtatious act of petulant defiance, and is glared at for his trouble.
The Sacristan goes to leave also but is detained for questioning by Scarpia, who suspects the fugitive Angelotti may have come to the club to lay low. A search of the area reveals the food basket bought by the Sacristan for Cavardossi that is now empty, even though the painter had stated earlier he was not hungry, and a fan which was with the disguise of female clothing left by Angelotti’s sister to aid his escape has also been left behind. Scarpia correctly surmises that the fugitive was indeed here and has been aided by Cavardossi. At that point Tosca returns to tell Cavardossi that their planned evening tryst must be delayed as tonight’s celebrations means he must sing. Confused by his absence Tosca is readily convinced by Scarpia, with the ‘evidence’ of the left behind fan, that his lover is indeed being unfaithful and he dashes off to go to their secret villa to confront him – Scarpia orders him to be followed.
One at a time the chorus members are manhandled back into the room; found during the search for Angelotti, no doubt brought before Scarpia for questioning. There is the feeling that perhaps none of these young men are strangers to rough treatment but this occasion is different and they know it. Forced to their knees behind a dominant Scarpia they are frightened and share swift embraces of comfort. As Scarpia sings of his skill in manipulating Tosca sure that he will soon have Angelotti recaptured, Cavardossi dead and Tosca conquered the chorus starts to sing a Latin hymn initially quietly then getting louder. Suddenly, seemingly the dominant sound is that of the chorus, even the piano accompaniment ceases, the chorus sing the ‘Te Deum’, their beautiful crystal-
Act Two opens on a room in another part of the club. Strewn on the floor this time are dozens of head and shoulder photographs, club employees or banned patrons. Perhaps they are all people who have been ‘disappeared’ -
Two pieces of news then reach the room that change the dynamics of the situation. Firstly that Napoleon has won a great victory at Marengo which causes Cavardossi to briefly overcome his injuries and tell Scarpia that his days of corrupt power will soon be over. Scarpia takes a new tack with Tosca suggesting that if he wishes to save Cavardossi ,whose assistance of Angelotti means he himself will be hanged, Tosca must give himself to Scarpia. Repulsed by the idea Tosca initally refuses singing the beautiful Vissi D’arte. Word then comes that Angelotti rather than be captive again has taken his own life. A distraught Tosca capitulates to Scarpia’s terms on the stipulation that Scarpia provides a letter of safe conduct out of the city once a mock execution of Cavardossi has been carried out; it will appear he has been shot rather than hanged. In traditional stagings of the opera Tosca stabs Scarpia as soon as the letter of safe conduct is written but in this version he uses the moment of distraction when the letter is being written to empty the entire contents of one of the phials on the table into Scarpia’s drink delivering him a massive overdose when Scarpia then takes a triumphant drink from the can. He is, within seconds, writhing on the floor in pain and soon dead. The last words of Act Two are spoken rather than sung. In this male Tosca production the verbal contrast between the male soprano singing voice and a male speaking voice seemingly gave the words even greater additional venom and punch. Tosca empties the very last dregs of the opiate over the dead Scarpia stating “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!/All Rome trembled before him!”
In more conventional productions of the opera Act Three is all about the execution of Cavardossi and involves castles and battlements and firing squads. In the Carmina Priapea production the eventual death of the hero looks far more like a gangland hit and is very much in keeping with the overall presentation of the narrative. Like other versions though the Act opens with one of the members of the chorus singing a beautiful rendition of the Shepherd boy aria Io de sospiri Mia’ to signify that dawn, the time for the execution/murder has arrived.(The rest of the chorus is not actually seen after the end of Act One although they are heard singing off stage.) Cavardossi is lead into the room where he is to be shot and tied to a wooden chair, whilst one of Scarpia’s henchmen psyches himself to pull the trigger. Tosca arrives and begs to talk to Cavardossi telling him that they will escape, the execution is a sham, that Cavardossi must feign death and when all are convinced he is dead they will make their escape from Rome. But the ‘hit’ is real and as soon as the gun in fired Cavardossi slumps dead, Scarpia’s final deception of Tosca is revealed to him. As Tosca cradles his dead lover Spoletta arrives, Scarpia’s body has been found and it is obvious who has killed him. In the confusion Tosca manages to get hold of the gun and rather than let himself be taken by Scarpia’s heavies puts it to his head…
The image above is of the talented and hard working ensemble and accompanist/music director taking their well deserved final bows to enthusiastic applause on the second performance. It is to be hoped that the production company Carrmina Priapea flourishes and will bring other works of equally high standards to appreciative audiences. This excellent production played to sell out audiences and there will surely be many who would have liked to see it but could not get tickets. Hopefully this review I have written, so from one who was fortunate enough to have watched it, will have given readers an idea of what being in the audience was like.
Site Administrator and
Thrilled Performance Two Audience Member
Rehearsals for the first appearance of the chorus.
This image was taken during rehearsals and is of Greg dancing with other members of the chorus and the Sacristan.
The last ‘light’ episode in the opera, the scene reflected one of a type of ‘enforced gaiety’ that was perhaps fuelled by drugs or alcohol. If the singer Tosca represents the glitz and glamour of the club the boys of the chorus were definitely part of its darker underbelly.
Making up for the final performance. Swan Lake inspired.
Greg studied ballet for a number of years.