More Than Musical’s “The Kiss of Tosca”, Hong Kong

Karen Chia-ling Ho and Carlo Kang in the first scene of The Kiss of Tosca Karen Chia-ling Ho and Carlo Kang in the first scene of The Kiss of Tosca

To paraphrase Star Trek—perhaps appropriately, given Director Nic Muni’s pre-performance talk emphasizing the modern vibe he wished to give the work—this is Tosca, but not as we know it. More Than Musical’s most recent production is more than ridotto—reduced and abridged for a smaller cast and orchestra—but altered and rearranged.

Muni cut the work to the three leads—the painter Cavaradossi, the evil Baron Scarpia and the diva Tosca herself—with all the other, smaller parts in the original combined together in a Da Vinci Code-like character called “The Monk”. The orchestra was paired to a pianist, a cellist and a very effective percussionist.

Something over a half-hour was cut from the original to deliver a single act of about 75 minutes. Maintaining the original setting of Rome at the turn of the 19th century, the core of the story is all there—the revolutionary painter Cavaradossi who is arrested for hiding an escaped political prisoner, the beautiful and jealous singer Tosca with whom he is carrying on an affair, and the chief of the secret police Scarpia who wants Cavaradossi in jail and Tosca in his bed—as are all the big numbers. More than a few lines, not just those combined in the person of the Monk, have been re-assigned.

The singers seemed to take a few minutes to hit their stride—opening night gremlins, perhaps—but by the second scene (rather than act) in Scarpia’s headquarters at the Palazzo Farnese, they were in fine voice.

Carlo Kang as Scarpia
Carlo Kang as Scarpia

In her first Tosca, Taiwanese soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho, seen last year in Hong Kong at the Arts Festival’s Dream of the Red Chamber, looked as well as sounded the part. The two male leads were Korean tenor Jung Soo Yun and baritone Carlo Kang. Cavaradossi isn’t all heroic revolutionary and Yun can be warmly expressive when simple phrasing calls for it. Kang, by the standards of this young cast, is a relative veteran and it showed: his portrayal of an entitled, odiously smarmy Scarpia was secure, confident and rounded. The character of the Monk was sung—and, indeed, created in what was in effect a world premiere—by Hong Kong resident Stefan Gordon; he was meant to be creepy, and he was.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and there were moments of brilliance.

More Than Musical presents its productions as something along the lines of opera updated and streamlined for the 21st-century, for a new generation who, I guess the logic goes, find opera in the original TLTL (that would be “Too Long to Listen” to). Regardless of the validity of that premise, the net result has an esthetic that strikes me as being as much theatre as opera.

Opera, at least “grand” opera like Tosca, is to a large extent theatre beefed up with an orchestra, large numbers of people, big voices and emotions painted in broad strokes. The finer points of the plot are not always of paramount importance. By paring this back, and performing in a venue where the audience is (literally) in spitting distance of the performers, one perhaps inevitably ends up relying once again on theatrical strengths rather those traditionally associated with opera.

This does not downplay the importance of the singing—on the contrary, errors in diction and pitch are much more noticeable in this format; the singers had nowhere to hide and to their credit had no call to. But the Kiss of Tosca might be better seen as “theatre-plus” rather than “opera-minus”.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and there were moments of brilliance. A single act means no scene stages and so limited furniture—so no dinner table on which Tosca can find a knife with which to do Scarpia in.

Karen Chia-ling Ho as Tosca
Karen Chia-ling Ho as Tosca

She does however have a long hairpin, the removal of which not only lets her hair down, but provides the instrument of assassination. Meanwhile, when Scarpia is pressuring Tosca to let him have his way with her, Tosca strips out of her gown to a (rather demure, it must be said) white shift. As he bleeds and she stands over him, lit from the side, hair undone, dressed in white, she looks nothing as much as an avenging ghost. Whether deliberate imagery or not, it cannot have been lost on a city brought up on ghost stories. Muni then re-assigns the wistful third act shepherd’s aria to Tosca, which acts a sort of coda to her life; in fact, I thought the work was going to end there.

Some of the connecting tissue, the dialogue that explains the whys and wherefores, had however been cut. Retaining some of this would have made the work slightly longer, but with a cast like that, that would hardly be a drawback.

In this, its second outing, More Than Musical remains an interesting company.

 

The Kiss of Tosca continues through 3 November.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.