Like most Cardiff based critics who review opera, Welsh National Opera’s eternal staging of Tosca, has had a frequent stage presence over the years.
Whether at the New Theatre or their now home the Wales Millennium Centre it could never be ignored. This is my fourth time seeing their Tosca and the experience never wains. I’ve spoken in the past of it being a perfect opera and is a great introduction to those who have yet to pop their opera cherry. My views remain unmoved.
To my shock and horror, Mary Elizabeth Williams who set the stage ablaze in La forza del destino, would not be doing the press night of Tosca. After finally meeting her for an interview last month, she was kind enough to throw a ticket my way, just so I could experience her once again as the great operatic diva. A kind gesture, greatly appreciated from this fan boy.
Having already reviewed this Tosca in this season, with the original leads of Claire Rutter and Hector Sandoval, it was time for both leads in La forza to also shine. Mary and Gwyn Hughes Jones, who both saved the Verdi rarity from its surreal and flippant staging, here also make for another set of great lovers. Mary here is ecstatic, at times filled with rage and epic jealousy (“Paint the eyes darker!”). Her voice remains on stellar form, her show stopping aria being the well-known Vissi d’arte, here reaching stratospheric heights, in her plea to the wicked villain that is Scarpia. I listened out for crying during this point and was not disappointed to hear sniffling noses. The only time I would grant this.
Gwyn is our portly Cavaradossi, who seems to just live and breathes Puccini. With a voice perfectly tuned to the Italian repertoire, he never fails to stir the senses and warm the heart. The rest of the cast remained unchanged, yet still maintained their dramatic grasp. Mark S. Doss is still a brutal Scarpia, with his awful plotting and lustful intentions. His burly baritone fits well in the role and his death is mostly welcome, though we do miss his voice after he is gone. The stirring Te Deum, which ends the first act is rousing in its mixture of religious music, juxtaposed with his disgusting plot taking place at the same instance. Whilst the Te Deum and the two famous arias linger in the memory, my favourite musical passages in the opera are: the plodding horn and bell call as Scarpia approaches Tosca in the church in act one and the evocative/exotic sounding orchestration, moments before Cavaradossi’s mock execution in act three.
Curiously, the more I see this production the more I discover in it. Upon seeing it for the first time (years ago now), I completely missed the sculpture of a horned god, set within Scarpia’s walls of act two (I was sat on the aisle seat and it could not be seen). Only this time round did I see Spoletta, (Scarpia’s right hand man) take a perverted sniff of Tosca’s coat as she negotiates in the second act. Mary memorably flicked her shoes well off her feat this time, for the famous ending, flinging them at the huge golden angel in the last act. Also interesting to observe that both Toscas this season pulled the carving knife out of Scarpia’s roast dinner at different times in the production (Claire would conceal it, whilst Mary would leave it on the table), so that he himself could be carved up. A fitting end for the man who “All of Rome trembled before him”.
The opera never losses its tight grip, the thriller elements reaching boiling points in the final two acts. The staging is grander than grand, causing gasps in many respects. The costumes are an opulent part of the period setting, Tosca’s clothes are noteworthy in their stunning, following detail and intricate design. Conductor Timothy Burke and the remarkable WNO orchestra help bring this clamping drama to its zenith. These along with the chorus are truly musicians who play as if there lives are in danger. It is an honour to hear them play and sing every opportunity I can get.
Sat next to an elder lady who had never seen Tosca, she gasped and murmured in the more intense scenes and to the other side of me was a fidgety man who was most likely had never been to he opera before. The odd experience of sitting with these clashing personalities left for a funny and somewhat vexing encounter.
Who knows when we shall embrace the kiss of Tosca again?
A must see on tour.
Tosca is now on tour along with La forza del destino and Don Giovanni.
Images: Robert Workman