The Welsh National Opera production of Tosca wisely chooses to give a philological rendition of the opera, setting it in the time period that was originally intended by Puccini. This is a contrast with many recent production, choosing an alternative time setting for their re-imagination of classics.
Still, it is a clever choice for a text that is deeply tied to the period it is set in, yet it does not hinder the sensation that the story itself is strikingly relevant to a modern audience. Allowing for a greater level of immersion in the plotline and preserving the suspension of disbelief, this choice also gives a sense of continuity, connecting the Napoleonic times with the present and showing the continuing relevance of the themes touched by Illica and Giacosa in composing their script.
In the times of ongoing political protests and the #metoo movement, this tale of political dissidents and of a powerful man blackmailing a willful woman to obtain her sexual favours resonates even more starkly with the modern spectator precisely because its being set in a distant historical time allows to look at it with greater detachment.
Mary Elizabeth Williams
Together with Mark Henderson’s understated but incisive lighting design, a sombre stage setting perfectly evokes the feeling of dread hanging over all characters. The spaces are vast and empty, yet feel constricting, heavy, almost devoid of colour in a range of greys, blacks and browns in which Tosca’s red dress of the second and third act stands out like a prophetic streak of blood.
Religious symbols remind the audience of the oppressive presence of a constricting faith that is always on the background: from the crucifix on the wall in Scarpia’s rooms (which turns out to be a literal Chekhov’s gun) to the papal procession crossing the church as Scarpia declares his terrible plans, culminating in the presence of the archangel, sword drawn, on the terrace of Castel Sant’Angelo, almost seeming to threaten the characters with inevitable divine wrath. This recurrence of religious symbols created a connecting thread on the background, subtly introducing a theme that is important for the understanding of the opera as a whole.
Good performances were given by all the cast, with Mary Elizabeth Williams delivering a wilful, sharp-edged Tosca, still capable of surprising softness in her final duet with Cavaradossi. Her lively depiction of a conflicted woman, caught in an impossible situation, resonates deeply with modern sensibilities. Avoiding the risk of reducing the character to her feistiness, she delivers Tosca as a soulful, troubled woman, refusing to surrender and yet repeatedly second-guessing her choices. Mark S. Doss was impressive as Scarpia, proving both elegant and sinister and providing nuance to a character easily at risk of being stereotyped. His commanding performance was accompanied by a smooth, intense delivery, stealing the scene – especially in the second act – and portraying the character as both threatening and suave. This choice of a light-handed approach to a classically villanous character shaped a rendition of Scarpia that felt believable and truly threatening. Hector Sandoval’s Cavaradossi was at times overstated, but delivered a powerful performance in the third act. His stage presence and approach to the character proved far more effective in the dramatic moments over the light-hearted ones. At times less engaging were the other performances, with both Daniel Grice’s Angelotti and Michael Clifton-Thompson’s Spoletta sometimes overwhelmed by the music.
Mark S. Doss
The orchestra gave a thoroughly enjoyable delivery, blending easily with the stage performances.While the music could prove less accessible to a novice audience than that of other operas – not having a great variety of easily recognisable famous arias, and sometimes indulging in dissonance – the production could serve as an excellent introduction for a non-specialist audience. The linearity of the plot, its closeness to modern sensibility, and the intense performances of the main characters engage the audience regardless of its level of experience with opera.
More reviews of Tosca including alternate cast: