Theatre in Wales

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A full-bloodied Tosca that pulls no punches


Welsh National Opera , Wales Millennium Centre , May-26-06
Tosca by Welsh National Opera This polished revival of Michael Blakemore’s 1992 production reminds us just why Tosca is one opera’s popular classics – and when done right is enthralling music theatre.

Some directors feel the need to transpose the action to other eras, such as Fascist Italy, to presumably add a fresh dimension to the drama. But no such jiggery pokery is needed as the dark tale of Tosca stands the test of time as one of opera’s great melodramas.

As such it can be perhaps overdone; particularly the baddie Scarpia being too much a pantomime villain, and the result is clumsy and brutish, saved only by Puccini’s masterful score.

Here there is nothing clumsy about neither the direction nor its execution and the only brutish element is when Scarpia, the Chief of Police in 1800 Rome, drops his elegant and charming façade to force his way with Tosca.
The characters are carefully realised and give performances filled with nuances that help elevate them from the risk of being one-dimensional. It might be going too far to say they become realistic, believable characters but they in this production, revived by Benjamin Davis, they certainly explore the dramatic possibilities of their roles.

We are left wondering, for example, whether Cavaradossi realises that Scarpia’s promise to Tosca to stage a mock execution and allow the couple to leave Rome is a trick.

It may be a grim story with a high body count but it is filled with some of
Puccini’s most lyrical music and exquisite duets and arias. This juxtaposition of horrific situations and beauty makes the piece so gripping and yet emotionally satisfying.

The exchanges between Tosca and Cavaradossi in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle are playful and charming as the jealous diva reveals her greatest weakness that within minutes Scarpia will come to exploit so effectively.

The pivotal exchanges, some might say seduction scene, between Scarpia and Tosca where he poisons her mind that Cavaradossi is being unfaithful are masterful. Scarpia has just the right mixture of elegance and power to entrance Tosca into his web of deceit.

Act Two is suitably chilling and repulsive in Scarpia’s cold, solid apartments in Palazzo Farnese. While religious figures dominated the interior of the church, here it is a bust of Pan. Behind this wall is Scarpia’s interrogation room where Cavaradossi is tortured.

Again simple touches bring vibrancy to the action such as Scarpia taking off his formal wig before turning to claim his sexual prize and exposing himself as a vulnerable man. Tosca plunges the knife into him with shocking relish and goads him as he writhes on the floor in a pretty convincing death scene.
For the final act the top of Castel Sant’Angelo is dominated this time by a vast angel of death. A shepherd boy sings in the distance before the church bells of Rome herald dawn and with it Cavaradossi’s execution. All splendidly staged, preparing us for the final element of this tragic thriller.
Dennis O’Neill is a wonderful Cavaradossi, his singing is firm, confident and thrilling throughout and with the heart-breaking aria ‘E lucevan le stele’ beautiful and moving. His love duets with Tosca are at times playful, at times passionate while he becomes the heroic tenor in his confrontations with Scarpia.

He is ably paired by the Tosca of Australian soprano Deborah Riedel who sings the role with strength and presence. While there are some moments that may not be the most beautiful sound her own show stopping aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ is delivered with pathos.

Scarpia is sung by Peter Sidhom as a truly captivating character, sinister and depraved indeed but also mesmerizing. From his dramatic entrance in Act One through a blindingly bright door into the gloom of the church, to his death as he chokes on his own blood, this is a dramatically engrossing Scarpia. The Te Deum that closes Act One is to die for. And indeed they all do.

With a vocally powerful cast and Julian Smith conducting with great fervour this is a full-bloodied Tosca that pulls no punches and delivers Puccini at his most emotionally manipulating best.

There are further performances at Wales Millennium Centre May 28, June 2. North Wales Theatre, Llandudno July 11, 13.

Reviewed by: Mike Smith

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