Tosca Review – Scottish Opera 16 October 2019

If the fascists came to power, how far would you go to stand up to them? Would you save a prisoner on the run? Would you betray a friend? Would you be prepared to die for love?

Scottish Opera’s endlessly revived production of Tosca asks all these questions and more.

Thirty nine years ago, almost to the day, Anthony Besch’s glorious production first came to the stage, updating Puccini’s melodrama to Mussolini’s Italy. Jonathan Cocker has blown fresh life into it as the revival director and proves that it still has something to say today.

The sets look gorgeous, the singing is strong and Stuart Stratford’s conducting managed to bring off the difficult trick of making the orchestra sound expansive and rich without ever swamping the singers.

In Act 1, Puccini takes us to church. From the first appearance of Dingle Yandell as Angelotti a political prisoner on the run it was clear that singing was going to be one of the strongest features in this revival. Both he and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi, Tosca’s love interest brought an easy confidence to their singing.

The only big trouble in this production is the sheer volume of liturgical faux pas that have been seen before and still haven’t been corrected. People don’t cross themselves a dozen times whilst reciting the angelus. Nor do they turn their backs on the central statue of the Virgin Mary whilst doing so. Nor do bishops process anywhere other than at the back of a procession and when they do, they carry their crosiers in their left hand the better to bless those around them with their right hand. Women were not singing in choirs in Italian churches in the 1940s and when naughty choirboys misbehave (and they do!) they don’t do it like that. For a production that is so detailed and so deliberately set in one place and time, all this does rather jar.

But on to Act 2, and Tosca’s showdown with the villain of the piece, Baron Scarpia. Natalya Romaniw was a revelation, bringing light, energy and bitter pathos to the great aria Vissi d’arte. It felt as though the whole theatre was still – the only movement being the tears gently rolling down a number of faces in the audience. Meanwhile, Roland Wood never seemed to have quite the click of the heels or stamp of the jackboots that one might have expected of a fascist tyrant. A bit more badness would have gone a long way.

By the time we reached the battlements for the final Act, the audience had been on an emotional rollercoaster. Tosca brought it all to an end – betrayed and alone but utterly defiant to the last.

It does seem astonishing that a production that has been revived so many times over nearly 40 years could still pack in a strong audience and still have so much to say. This production is reassuringly the same but times have changed. With the rise of the far right there is a need for art to stand up to oppression wherever it is found. Even opera has a role to play and this production offers courage and inspiration. The fight against tyranny isn’t over and this revival feels all too timely and more relevant than ever.

Rating: ★★★★☆

This review was first published by Scene Alba Magazine

Sermon – Reading the Signs of the Times

 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the nicest things that I’ve been at this week was the annual dinner that the Shia Muslim community put on to celebrate Eid-al-adha. The festival of the sacrifice.

Islam has the same story that Christians and Jews share, remembering Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, only for God to provide a sheep to be sacrificed at the last minute. The only difference being that our Muslim friends speak of the son saved from being sacrificed as Ishmael – the son the Arab people believe themselves to be descended from. Christians and Jews tell the story about Isaac – the one they believe themselves to be descended from. Same story. Different son.

The feast of the sacrifice is the biggest festival in the Islamic year and coincides with the days when the largest crowds are completing the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.

Christians don’t keep any festival over that story. It crops up in the lectionary but by and large we don’t particularly celebrate it.

In Islam it is a day for celebration. For sharing food with those who have less than you do and for partying.

And in Scotland, the Shia community has developed its own tradition of having a banquet for Eid and this week I was invited.

Now, I always say yes when the Shias invite me to a party as I know that there will be all kinds of interesting people there.

One of the interesting paradoxes of life is that though the ecumenical movement is in the doldrums, one of the places where I get to meet Christians from other Christian traditions is when Muslims invite us all together for food.

And thus I found myself enjoying a very good curry and sitting next to someone who runs a Roman Catholic agency dedicated to eliminating poverty across the world and someone else working on ecological concerns and theology.

It was fascinating to hear them talk to one another. And frightening too.

The first people to suffer from Climate Change are the first people to suffer every time something happens to the world – the poor, the needy, the hungry.

At the dinner table, these two people had much in common to talk about.

I found myself asking one of them what theological ideas he was working on at the moment when thinking about ecological theology.

He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Well all we have to do these days is reach for the apocalyptic – that’s what describes the world we live in now”

And that sense of reaching for the apocalyptic has stayed with me all week and stays with me as I read this morning’s gospel.

There’s more than a hint of the apocalyptic about it.

Firstly the claim from Jesus himself that he will pit father against son and daughter against mother and all the rest.

I see Christ as a peacemaker but he didn’t see himself like that.

Reading this text after two divisive referendums and paying even a passing glance at social media, we can see all kinds of people who once got on, at odds with one another. How common it has become to see people as being set against one another.

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Our world is full of people who do not know how to interpret the present time.

None of us I suspect quite know how we have ended up in the world of 2019. I am amongst those who didn’t expect to see racism and antisemitism rising, acceptance of same-sex couples stalling and xenophobia becoming a major political narrative.

I just don’t know whether there were signs of the times. I do just know that I didn’t read them correctly.

And I do just know that the signs of the times when it comes to the climate are there for all to see.

“When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’

We don’t need to be told that clouds mean rain here in the West of Scotland. But somehow we do need to comprehend that it isn’t climate change we are talking about but climate disaster.

Some faith communities have been talking about this for far longer than we have. There are thinkers in the orthodox churches who are way ahead theologically than we are.

It is looking increasingly likely that next year there will be a big climate conference in Glasgow. World leaders will (ironically) fly in from across the globe. Experts and policy makers will gather to try to find next steps in tackling the climate emergency.

If that takes place here, the churches and all people who care must be ready to speak out in the name of God for those whose voices so often go unheard – the poor of the world who need good news.

The signs of the times are all around us.

I spent Tuesday evening celebrating the feast of the sacrifice with Muslim friends.

A sense of sacrifice is inherent to protecting our world – being prepared to do without in order to save the very world in which we live.

If we are prepared to find a new ethic and a new economics of sustainability and care then God will bless us.

If we are prepared to sacrifice the very bounty and goodness of the earth for our own gain, then we face peril. And the apocalyptic won’t simply be something we reach for in order to predict what will happen next.

I believes that God loves this world and that God loves you. I believe that God loves the world and God loves me. And I believe that God’s love for the world will be expressed through both action and compassion.

The duty that Christians have in a world as perilous as this one has become is to frame our questions not by how we will benefit from the answers that we find but how our answers will benefit the poor.

God’s love is especially for the poor. And we are called to express that very same love in action.

That reading from Hebrews that we heard this morning was a great song of praise to those who have kept the faith through generations. Faith in a God of love who calls us to love.

A great cloud of witnesses – that no matter what, Christians have gone on expressing the love of God through whatever terrors faced each day.

Antisemitism. Xenophobia. Selfishness. The Climate Emergency.

We are one with the Great Cloud of Witnesses who proclaimed the love of God in their generation and acted on it.

And we will keep the faith.

God’s love is real.

And requires us to act in our day.