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Tosca – Bristol Hippodrome

Music: Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa &Luigi Illica

Director: Michael Blakemore

Revival director: Benjamin Davis

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

[Rating:4]

Photograph: Brian Tarr

Photograph: Brian Tarr

A mammoth among mammoths, Tosca runs the gamut of the emotions more, perhaps, than any other opera. Set in Rome in 1800, amid political unrest and a brutal police regime, the sheer scale of this opera is mind-blowing, with music that tears at the heartstrings from start to finish. The story is that of the singer, Tosca, who inadvertently betrays her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, to the evil chief of police Scarpia, setting in motion a series of terrible events which ends in tragedy. First performed in January 1900 in Rome, there are connotations with contemporary events elsewhere.

From the beginning a bloody conclusion is inevitable, but before that we are treated to some of the most famous music in classical opera, embracing arias such as Vissi d’arte (I must give up my art) sung by Tosca in Act II. American soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, making her debut with the Welsh National Opera, sings Tosca and does full justice to the rôle. Her melodic voice has a power and depth that is well-suited to the part, coming into its own in Acts II and III. However, in the first half of Act I, when she doubts Cavaradossi’s love for her, she has a tendency to become overly girlish, with a simper which at times irritates rather than arouse our sympathy.

On the evening of this review Geraint Dodd took the place of Gwyn Hughes Jones, who should have sung Cavaradossi, but was unwell. Dodd has sung this part before with WNO, so is familiar with the rôle and has a pleasing tenor, particularly suited to the love duets. Unfortunately there was a second case of illness among the cast on the evening, this being Daniel Grice, who should have sung Angelotti, the political prisoner who Cavarossi hides, leading to his own capture. Grice was replaced by Lawrence Cole, who copes admirably with this small but important rôle.

The pivotal villain of the piece is Scarpia, the lecherous and evil police Baron who will stop at nothing to achieve his own desires. Austrian baritone Claudio Otelli is well versed in the rôle, but still has not come to grips with getting over to the audience the chilling menace lurking beneath Scarpia’s suave exterior. This is particularly the case in the earlier part of Act II, where Otelli’s Scarpia presents as a dirty and lecherous roué, rather than the devious malignant bent on revenge.

A comedic touch relieves the dark intensity of the opening scene. Providing this, as the sacristan, William Robert Allenby is in great form, gambolling around the stage with evident relish.

Upholding the high standard which we have come to expect as the norm for them, the chorus of the WNO plays its part in conveying the overpowering depth of feeling and the sheer musicality of this opera, particularly in the well-known and popular Te Deum at the end of Act I.

Great lighting designed by Mark Henderson does much to enhance the atmospheric sets devised by Ashley Martin-Davis, notably in the opening scenes inside the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and the climax on the battlements of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo.

A co-production with State Opera of South Australia, and overall a revival which has much to commend it.

Runs until 9th November 2013.

 

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