A world-class debut for NI Opera and an exceptional showcase for Derry-Londonderry

It was one of the most ambitious performance art events ever attempted in Derry – a peripatetic Tosca staged across three of the city’s most historic landmarks. But it proved an epic success for both NI Opera and the host city.

For a new company to attempt a challenging piece like Tosca right out of the traps is a tall order. But for a new company to attempt to deliver three acts in three separate venues – none of which were designed for opera – is nothing short of flat-out mad.

Take a long bow, Oliver Mears, NI Opera’s Artistic Director, who not only rendered a fast-paced and mesmerising English language adaptation of Puccini’s political thriller, but in doing so also created a magnificent musical tour of Derry’s Elizabethan theatre quarter.

Tosca opens in a church in Rome, so where better to perform Act One than in Derry’s 400-year-old St Columb’s Cathedral (re-designated as Catholic for the occasion).

The opening scenes are packed with drama, humour and passion as the artist Cavaradossi (Jesús León) hides an escaped prisoner Angelotti (John Molloy) in a private chapel, and then must convince his lover Floria Tosca (Giselle Allen) – a neurotic diva who suspects intrigue – that he’s not cheating on her.

The raunchy, sometimes feral, interplay between Allen and León is particularly riveting; Tosca is jealous, insecure, coquettish and fierce; Cavaradossi is elegant, charming and tolerant. The singing and acting from both leads is outstanding, but as a pair they are electric.

As the act draws to an end, the brutal Scarpia (Paul Carey Jones) storms the cathedral to search for Angelotti – his hunt given added melodrama by the thundering 'Te Deum' and a crypto-political religious procession brilliantly enacted by the chorus along the aisle of the Cathedral.

Jones’s Scarpia is a mid-20th century, fascist chief of police, made all the more malevolent by his superb costume – Nazi uniforms with Cross Keys armbands – and a group of sinister brown-suited henchmen.

Only one question is on the audience’s lips as they leave their pews for the guided walk along Derry’s ancient battlements to the Guildhall for Act Two: how do you top that? But they aren’t waiting long for the answer in the atmospheric surrounds of the Great Hall. Scarpia’s slow, tortuous interrogation of the hapless Tosca climaxes in a shockingly gory murder scene that would leave Tarantino for dust, as our prima donna wreaks revenge.

The spectacle is made all the more intense by the orchestra’s sizzling score and by the decision to use the Guildhall floor rather than the stage for the action. This clever but unexpected set-design also ensures that the entire audience get to file out past Scarpia’s still-steaming carcass at the interval.

This act is also memorable for Andrew Rees’s darkly comic portrayal of Spoletta, Scarpia’s sadistic sidekick; Rees emanates such grinning menace that he steals every scene he is in.

Having paid our respects to the corpse, it’s back along East Wall to St Columb’s Hall for Act Three, the clement spring weather doing away with the need for opera umbrellas. And the denouement – set in a cold, Stalinist execution chamber – is well worth the five minute uphill stroll.

The new venue lets the audience see the orchestra for the first time and allows conductor Nicholas Chalmers to enter from the back of the hall to loud, deserved acclaim.

The three death-scenes – the shooting of an unnamed prisoner, the supposed mock execution of Cavaradossi that turns real, and Tosca’s suicide - are in turn horrifyingly violent, shatteringly poignant and hopelessly defiant. But again, it is the scorching dynamic between the two principals, Allen and León, which remains long in the mind after all the blood is mopped off the stage.

There are visitors from all over Ireland and beyond for this NI Opera debut – many of them from other opera companies. And to judge from the long ovations that greet the curtain, they are hugely impressed.

Opera, it’s often argued, is the most difficult of all the performance arts to produce. There are so many elements to worry about: singing, acting, orchestra, set, lights, acoustics, costumes and choreography - before you even start thinking about the financing. And then, you’re expected to weave all these strands together with such care that no-one can see the join.

And nobody does – a remarkable achievement given that this airtight homogeneity has to be replicated over three very different venues.

The only minor quibble – but it was remarked on, so it’s worth mentioning – is that the acoustics for opera in St Columb’s Hall aren’t on a par with those in the high-ceilinged chambers of the cathedral and the Guildhall. And with so many world-class vocalists on display it might be worth investigating if the nearby Millennium Forum could service the final act when the opera returns for Derry’s City of Culture celebrations in 2013. And return it must.