As we moved from the staircase of Wales Millennium Centre in February 16, 2018 to the interior of Rome’s Sant’ Andrea della Valle on June 17 and 18, 1800, an unfortunate exchange had put me in just the right mood for an opera about ugly intimidation dressed up in faux civility. Life and art and all of that….
So to the show.
The former Consul of the failed Roman Republic and now escaped prisoner Angelotti, sung by Daniel Grice, has hobbled into the church where our hero Mario Cavaradossi, sung by Mexican tenor Hector Sandoval, has been painting a Mary Magdalene from on top of a slightly rickety platform. He finds a hidden key to a chapel and hides.
The cynical and comic Sacristan, sung by the lovely character singer-actor Donald Maxwell, comes in to tidy up and squeeze as much nuance out of the role as he does the cloth with which he wipes up drips from a leaking bucket that he moves around. He sets the tone of a city where the church is corrupt and props up the ancient regime, power is abused, everyone is frightened of the secret police and that the establishment despises Napoleon (on the eve of the Battle of Marengo) and the ideas of the enlightenment. Not bad for a few minutes of performing.
Hector Sandoval and Claire Rutter
Daniel Grice and Hector Sandoval
Poor old Cavaradossi cannot get any work done as next pops in his lover Floria Tosca to arrange their romantic evening and similarly quickly establishes her character as the feisty, jealous actress, religiously pious and madly in love. When she recognises that the Mary Magdalene is a portrait of
an actual woman, Marchesa Attavanti, who has recently been in the church, she demands Cavardossi paints her with dark rather than blue eyes.
Mark S Doss
Claire Rutter and Mark S Doss
Yes, she is the prisoner’s sister and has left a key to the family chapel and a change of clothes (and a fan with the family crest) so he can make his escape. And yes, Cavadrossi is also a “Voltarian”, knows the prisoner from when he was a consul of the failed Roman Republic, and agrees to help him – but has to keep it all secret from Tosca as he knows she will not be able to keep shtum.
All we need now is our third main protagonist, the head of the police, Scarpia and the revelation of his plot how to not only capture the prisoner but also get his lustful way with Tosca. He finds the fan that the prisoner has accidentally dropped and sets his trap by placing it on the painter’s scaffold, Tosca is back to tell Cavaradossi their rendezvous is off as there is a big concert to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon (or so they think) but the painter has gone and Scarpia is waiting in the shadows to pounce (well seduce at this stage) by convincing Tosca she is right in suspecting her lover has been having an affair with Marchesa Attavanti. The chase is on.
The next two acts are extremely rapid with the dodgy deal to save Cavaradossi’s life, sex for liberty, how Tosca gets her revenge on Scarpia, how the lovers have a brief moment of joy as they think they are going to survive and then the twist in the tale – but in case you don’t know it I won’t go spoiling that.
Mark S Doss and Claire Rutter
Claire Rutter and Mark S Doss
Michael Blakemore’s production with Ashley Martin-Davis designs has been around now for about 25 years and is as traditional as you could possibly like. The costumes are of the Napoleonic era, the church is dark and gloomy Roman, the church men are crumbly and hooded, the children fun and lively, Scarpia’s office a renaissance Farnese Palace and the top of Castello Sant’Angelo as the sun slowly rises quite gorgeous with the sword bearing archangel dominant.
It may have been performed many a time but this revival by Benjamin Davis, conducted by Carlo Rizzi, is fresh and sufficiently reworked in the characterisations that it deserves this new outing. We have, as said, Donald Maxwell’s well-drawn Sacristan and Michael Clifton-Thompson, as Spoletta, also catches the eye with a clearly considered and well-developed weasel-like character, not a thug but a nasty piece of work, enjoying the suffering of others although not administering it himself, cowering and strutting in equal measure. Jack O’Kelly’s gaoler is a down to earth man, doing his job, not particularly sympathetic nor abusive of his doomed charges, he accepts the ring that Tosca has given to Cavaradossi in Act One (nice touch) as a bribe to let the condemned man write a note with matter of fact acceptance.
All three of the leading players grew as the evening proceeded although I may have just been too shaken by events off stage to fully appreciate Cavaradossi and Tosca’s arias and duets in Act One. This is a pity as it contains the loveliest lyrical singing which is reprised in Act Three and were excellent.
Scarpia’s most fabulous closing of Act One dramatic monologue aria merging into the Te Deum was refined and elegant, matching the acting of the role by Mark S Doss. However, I prefer more menace and grossness under the surface in my Scarpia. This became more apparent in the Second Act when he reveals his full lust and sexual preferences. Perhaps it was the wig. Once it was off and he looked more like a man than a slightly over-preened character from Beauty and The Beast, the menace and revulsion was more chilling. And he did die well.
Cavaradossi has a big hitter in Act Two which has to be just that yet I had little doubts about the occasional stand and belt it out showy notes. Fortunately this did not happen in the glorious E lucevan le stelle Act Three aria and here too I found him much more sympathetic and rounded in performance. Again, when he was more dramatically relaxed, less grandstanding both his singing and acting seemed more rich and engaging.
Tosca is a pretty straightforward role dramatically and it is difficult to play around with it, fortunately. Here is just what Puccini said on the tin and we were able to then listen and watch her acting without any gimmickry or silliness that so besets opera production. She has her big opportunity in Act Two with Vissi d’arte and even Scarpia has a little sit down / lean and let her take centre stage to perform it. I do not know how many times I have seen this opera (or this production) but all credit to the singer I fairly winced as the dagger went in and shudders as she urged him to drown in his own blood.
Carlo Rizzi conducted with passion and while Puccini’s verismo can extend to being almost overpowering there was fine sympathetic playing for those gentle, lyrical drops of purity in what is a sordid little tale.
Further performances at WMC February 21, 23 then touring including Birmingham Hippodrome, March 8, Bristol Hippodrome April 11, 13 and Venue Cymru, Llandudno April 18, 2o.
Images: Richard Hubert Smith