Archive for February 12, 2018

WNO Tosca

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on February 12, 2018 by telescoper

My current schedule takes me back and forth across the Irish Sea, making it a bit of challenge to take in as many musical events as I’d like to, but I did manage to get to see yesterday’s performance of Tosca at Welsh National Opera. I don’t usually go for afternoon performances, but this was basically my option. Not surprisingly there was a packed house in the Wales Millennium Centre for a tale of jealousy and murder set to gorgeous music by Giacomo Puccini.

Tosca is an opera in three acts (which means two intervals wine breaks…). It’s 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.

Floria Tosca (Claire Rutter) is a celebrated opera singer who is in love with an artist (and political radical) by the name of Mario Cavaradossi (Hector Sandoval), who helps to hide an escaped political prisoner while working on a painting in Act I. The odious Baron Scarpia (Mark Doss), 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”.

Hector Sandoval (Cavaradossi) and Claire Rutter (Tosca). Picture credit: WNO.

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”, but it has become a firm favourite with audiences around the world and is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of music drama. So how did Puccini manage to transform a penny-dreadful plot into a great work of art? I don’t think it’s hard to see why it works so well.

First and foremost, there’s the music, which  is wonderful throughout, but it is always plays an essential part in keeping everything moving. 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 underline the drama. Although not usually associated with the use of leitmotifs, Puccini deploys them throughout: Scarpia’s arrival is announced with a suitably menacing theme that recurs whenever he is present or even just referred to.  This theme is actually the first thing we hear as the Opera starts. It also plays Scarpia out at the end of Act 1 when he sings his magnificently chilling Va Tosca over a setting of the Te Deum. Time does stand still for Tosca’s great Act II aria, the dramatic fulcrum of the Opera, but that just emphasises the pace of the rest of the piece. This is a work with no spare flesh or padding anywhere, and a perfect interplay between music and action. The moment when Tosca sees the knife with which she will kill Scarpia is signalled by the orchestra.

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. It is a truly shocking moment when she kills Scarpia. In this production, she doesn’t just stab him once: she chases him around the room repeatedly plunging the knife into him, then stands over him  as he begs for help. There’s no attempt to sanitise the violence of his death. It’s all so real. I guess that’s why this type of opera is called Verismo!

Top marks for the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, under the direction of Carlo Rizzi, who did full justice to Puccini’s magnificent score. Claire Rutter has a fine voice for the role, and I thought Hector Sandoval sang and acted wonderfully. The big numbers in Tosca are quite familiar, but they still sounded fresh and were performed with great feeling. Best of all, Mark Doss has a dark baritone voice that gave Scarpia a tremendous sense of power and danger. He even got a few pantomime boos at the end.