Director / Revival Director: Michael Blakemore / Benjamin Davis
Music: Giacomo Puccini
Text: Giuseppe Giacosa / Luigi Illica
Reviewer: Helen Tope
Lust, greed, violence and corruption. As a mission statement, Tosca certainly meets every one of its objectives; the 1900 classic retains an edge a century on. With librettists Giacosa and Illica (the dream team behind La Boheme and Madame Butterfly), Puccini has crafted an opera that reveals itself as a work of wit and deadly perception.
The plot begins with political prisoner Angelotti fleeing his captors, and seeking refuge in a local chapel. There he meets a painter, Mario Cavaradossi; an idealist willing to risk everything for his beliefs. They concoct a plan to steer Angelotti to safety. Nearly discovered by Cavaradossi’s lover, the tempestuous diva, Floria Tosca, Angelotti hides whilst Cavaradossi reassures his darling that she, as always, is the centre of his world.
Narrowly avoiding capture by police chief Baron Scarpia, Angelotti is hidden by Cavaradossi at his country villa. Manipulated by Scarpia, Tosca follows Cavaradossi to the villa, Scarpia’s men in pursuit. Angelotti takes his own life, and Cavaradossi is tortured and prepared for execution. Scarpia offers Tosca an exchange. Cavaradossi will face a false execution and safe passage to freedom. She must spend one night with the corrupt police chief.
Tosca’s plot, though complex, rewards with a characterisation that is easily recognisable. The political prisoner, the artist and his lover, and the villain that will undo them all. It’s a page-turner, compulsively holding you till the very last note. The pleasure principle of opera is in the repetition; Tosca fulfils us in a way that an unfamiliar story can’t. All we have to do is watch the characters walk towards their fate.
The challenge for Welsh National Opera is how to leave us feeling as if we have experienced something new. By playing it straight, WNO has created a production that exposes the seams of Puccini’s great work.
The WNO staging is cinematic in its scope. The story starts small and intimate; a lovers’ quarrel. As we approach the final act, the emotions broaden and deepen, and the stage is filled with sound and spectacle. The sets, huge brooding pieces, tower above the actors, dispassionately framing the scene.
The personalities on stage are more than a match for Puccini’s epic vision. Claire Rutter is a suitably fiery Tosca, her coquettish jealousy giving way to bewilderment as her world unravels. Hector Sandoval’s rich tenor gives Mario body and life, but the night belongs to Scarpia, played by Mark S Doss. Darkly comic, Doss brings out the chancer in Scarpia; he is the career politician at the top of his game not through merit, but circumstance.
Puccini draws a disordered world, and there’s not even room in it for Tosca and Cavaradossi’s dark-eyed sensuality. The descent into violence and corruption is heady; Scarpia’s lust for power doesn’t just overwhelm, it suffocates. Puccini, barely into the 20th century, prefigures it with a universe where the certainties of religion shift under the weight of political will. It is a world without a moral centre, where all outcomes are possible.
From this chaos, death emerges the victor. But Puccini reassures us – and it is small comfort – that death comes for all the players, whether worthy, evil or indifferent. It may be a cruel conclusion, but among the bleakness there is beauty, and it makes Tosca a very modern masterpiece.
Runs until Saturday 31 March | Image: Contributed