I’ve been so busy over the last couple of weeks that I almost forgot that the current run of Tosca at Welsh National Opera was about to come to an end without me having seen it. Nightmare. I suddenly remembered on Thursday that yesterday’s performance was the last one in Cardiff, but I managed to get tickets just in the nick of time. Unsurprisingly, there was a packed house in the Wales Millennium Centre last night; we were treated to an evening of jealousy and murder set to gorgeous music by Giacomo Puccini.

Tosca is an opera in three acts (which means two intervals, glug glug..). It’s basically a melodrama, and is set in Rome in 1800. Each act takes place in a very specific location within the eternal city. Act I is in the Church of  Sant’Andrea della Valle, Act II in the Palazzo Farnese, and the final denouement of Act III takes place among the battlements at the top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo overlooking the Tiber. The setting is so specific to time and place that it resists being monkeyed about with, done in modern dress, staged in a chip shop or whatever. Thankfully, Michael Blakemore’s production (of which this is a revival) is very firmly of the period and location required. As a longstanding opera bore, I have to admit that I have been on a Tosca pilgrimage and have visited all three locations in Rome. The scenery used in last night’s performance isn’t exactly as the real locations but it definitely evokes them very well.

(Incidentally, there was a famous reconstruction of Tosca made in 1992 in which all the action was staged at the true location. You can find an example from Act III here.)

Floria Tosca (Elisabete Matos) is a celebrated opera singer who is in love with an artist (and political radical) by the name of Mario Cavaradossi (Geraint Dodd), who helps to hide an escaped political prisoner while working on a painting in Act I. The odious Baron Scarpia (Robert Hayward), chief of police, comes looking for the convict and decides to catch Tosca and Cavaradossi too. He lusts after Tosca and hates Cavaradossi. In Act II, we find Scarpia at home eating dinner for one while Cavaradossi is being tortured in order to find out the location of the escapee. Tosca turns up to plead for his life, but she hasn’t bargained with the true depths of Scarpia’s depravity. He wants to have his way with her, and to put pressure on he lets her listen to the sound of her lover being tortured. She finally consents, in return for Scarpia’s promise to let Cavaradossi go and grant free passage to the two of them. This he seems to do, but while she is waiting for him to write the letter of conduct she sees a knife. Instead of letting Scarpia defile her, she grabs it and stabs him to death. Act III begins with Cavaradossi facing execution, sure he is about to die. Tosca is convinced that this is just a charade and that Scarpia ordered them to pretend to shoot Cavaradossi so he wouldn’t look like he was being merciful, which would be out of character. The firing squad fire and Cavaradossi falls. But it was no fake. He is dead. Tosca is distraught and bewildered. Shouts offstage reveal that the police have found Scarpia’s body and that Tosca must have murdered him. To avoid capture she hurls herself from the battlements. Her last words are “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” – I’ll meet you before God, Scarpia.

The opera wasn’t particularly well received when it was first performed in 1900, being famously described by one critic as “a shabby little shocker”. I think the secret of its success is twofold. First and foremost the music is wonderful throughout. Of course there are the great arias: Vissi d’arte, Vissi d’amore sung by Tosca in Act II and E Lucevan le Stelle from Act III, sung by Cavaradossi; but even apart from those tremendous set-pieces, Puccini uses the music to draw out the psychology of the characters. And that leads to the second point. Each of the three principals could have been very two-dimensional. Cavaradossi the good guy. Scarpia the bad guy. Tosca the love interest. But all the characters have real credibility and depth. Cavaradossi is brave and generous, but he succumbs to despair before his death. No superhero this, just a man. Scarpia is a nasty piece of work all right, but at times he is pathetic and vulnerable. He is monstrous, but one is left with the impression that something made him monstrous. And then there’s Tosca, proud and jealous, loving but at the same time capable of violence and spite. They’re all so real. I guess that’s why this type of opera is called Verismo!

The orchestra and cast were excellent. Elisabete Matos has a fine voice for the role, and also managed to spit venom at Scarpia in authentic fashion. Geraint Dodd sang wonderfully, I thought. E Lucevan le Stelle is done so often that it’s difficult to make it fresh but his rendition was overwhelmingly emotional. Best of all, Robert Hayward has a dark baritone voice that gave Scarpia a tremendous sense of power and danger.

The only problem with the performance was right at the end. Elisabete Matos didn’t appear on cue for her curtain call. I was baffled. Eventually she appeared on stage, helped by a member of the backstage team. She looked very unwell and was clutching her ribs. I think she must have landed badly after her fall from the battlements. I hope she’s not badly hurt.

Whoever was responsible for health and safety might be for the firing squad themselves.

7 Responses to “Tosca”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Incidentally, there was a famous reconstruction of Tosca made in 1992 in which all the action was staged at the true location.”

    That would have been tricky. As I recall she flings herself off the battlements into the Tiber, but she’d need to be a record holder in the long jump and take a run-up, given that Castel sant’Angelo is set well back from the river.

    The film of Angels And Demons is also a romp round Rome’s best tourist sites, and includes CERN to boot.


  2. telescoper Says:

    Actually, if my memory serves me right (which is unlikely) there aren’t any battlements either – just a parapet.

    However, as is the case with the Thames, the width of the Tiber has changed during the course of the last 200 years. I am reliably (?) informed that the road that now separates the Castle from the river wasn’t there in 1800 and the river was a bit wider. Maybe she could have made it after all….

    However, the staging I saw had her jumping off what appeared to be the wrong side anyway. If she’d scarpia’d in that direction she would have gone splat into the Piazza Adriana.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Pizza Adriana would then be appropriate.

    The 1992 film should answer your battlements question.

    • telescoper Says:

      Take a look for yourself. Placido Domingo as Cavaradossi

      I don’t see any battlements…

      • telescoper Says:

        And if you want to see the yardstick by which any performance of Tosca will always be measured, watch Tito Gobbi as Scarpia and the great Maria Callas as Tosca in this piece of history.

  4. Thanks to some rest and care, Elisabete Matos recovered well and is now ready for her first Lady Macbeth:–opera-en-2009-2010–macbeth.html

  5. […] over a year ago I posted about Welsh National Opera’s Tosca here in Cardiff, so I’ll refer you there for details […]

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