Northern Ireland Opera and Ulster Orchestra at Grand Opera House, Belfast, on 14 September 2023

Belfast’s Grand Opera House – easily one of Ireland’s prettiest theatres – embodies a sense of fun and fantasy, with that fussy detailing, the sweetly painted ceiling, and all those little elephants. A serious article could be written about the orientalism underpinning all of this, but no doubt the intent was to create a space for escapism and tales of fantasy, like walking into a Victorian children’s picture-book. Made for pantomime and musical variety shows, it has a beguiling immediacy, even intimacy. Putting on a big-boned opera like ‘Tosca’ might seem a surprising choice – and the orchestra does have to be slightly reduced in size – yet this also allows the informality of Puccini’s theatrical style to speak in ways that come less easily in a bigger space.

Peter Auty (Cavaradossi) and Niall Anderson (Sacristan). Photo Neil Harrison

‘Tosca’ is a vicious tangle between good and evil, centring on the three main characters: Tosca, her lover/painter/freedom-fighter Mario Cavaradossi, and their brutal arch-enemy Baron Scarpia. Tenor Peter Auty (Cavaradossi) is an experienced, intelligent singer, and brings a combination of tenderness and nobility to the character which is affecting and deeply sympathetic. There are occasional signs of strain at the very top of the voice, but this is more than made up for by the warmth of his singing.

Svetlana Kasyan (Tosca) and Peter Auty (Cavaradossi). Photo Neil Harrison

Svetlana Kasyan brings a darkly powerful soprano voice to the title role and shows herself capable of a wide range of expression, from deftly elegant turns in the opening scenes to spine-tingling intensity in the second-act aria Vissi d’arte. The two of them make a believable couple, something not all productions of this opera – with its need for singers with large voices and attitudes – achieve. They are, simply, likeable. And this immediacy also applies to the brilliant Scarpia of Brendan Collins, his relatability making him all the more chilling.

Brendan Collins (Scarpia) and Svetlana Kasyan (Tosca). Photo Neil Harrison

Collins delivers a disciplined performance of this role, vocally immaculate, and believable as a character. For his debut in this role, it is an impressive achievement. The teamwork and ensemble singing between these three – especially Kasyan’s contrasting scenes with Auty and Collins – is equally telling. It clearly reflects the work of director Cameron Menzies, whose approach is collaborative and transparent, without ever losing energy. Like early cinema, this traditional production – broadly early- to mid-twentieth-century costumes, with a hint of fascist style for the ‘baddies’ – simply focuses on the interplay between the characters, to good effect.

Brendan Collins (Scarpia) and Svetlana Kasyan (Tosca). Photo Philip Magowan / Press Eye

Of the secondary roles, standout performances come from Niall Anderson (as an uncharacteristically young and priestly sacristan, making for a kind of ‘Father Trendy’) and the Spoletta of local singer Aaron O’Hare. Conductor Eduardo Strausser directs clearly and sensitively and coaxes some beautiful performances from the players of the Ulster Orchestra. This is a Tosca to treasure: romantic, expressive, powerfully melodramatic, and perfectly scaled to its setting. At the end, the capacity audience enthusiastically takes to its feet, applauding the company, and who can blame them?


Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
Sung in Italian (libretto by Guiseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica), with English surtitles
Produced by Northern Ireland Opera
Director: Cameron Menzies; Set Designer: Niall McKeever; Costume Designer: Gillian Lennox; Lighting Designer: Ciarán Bagnall; Conductor: Eduardo Strausser
Cast (in order of appearance): Matthew Durkan (Cesare Angelotti), Niall Anderson (Sacristan), Peter Auty (Mario Cavaradossi), Svetlana Kasyan (Floria Tosca), Brendan Collins (Scarpia), Aaron O’Hare (Spoletta), Connor Campbell (Sciarrone), Mollie Lucas / Alexa Thompson (Shepherd), Paul McQuillan (Jailer); Northern Ireland Opera Chorus and members of Belfast Philharmonic Choir & Youth Choir
Ulster Orchestra (leader: Ioana Petcu-Colan)

Photography by Philip Magowan and Neil Harrison