Tosca sings it loud and clear

Doomed lovers: Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi  Pictures: Robert Workman

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

THIS revived 1992 WNO production of Puccini’s dramatic tragedy has big sets which in turn demand big voices and they do not come much bigger than Mary Elizabeth Williams superb soprano as Floria Tosca.

Hailing from Philadelphia, Miss Williams is not all about power though, impressive though that is, she has a crystal clarity throughout her considerable range and considerable mastery of the dynamics of singing quietly, where her softer voice was still as steady and as clear as a bell. Her Vissi d’arte in act 2 was just beautiful and she possesses a voice capable of expressing raw fury or the gentlest affection with a wonderful vocal subtlety.

Miss Williams, who curtain call indication she could be great fun to have in a cast, also extracts what little humour there is in this tragedy in her jealous sparring with lover Mario Cavaradossi (Gwyn Hughes Jones); in short she has that wonderful attribute in an opera singer in that she can both sing and act.

Jones as the painter and reluctant revolutionary has a fine tenor which complements Tosca’s soprano beautifully, the two voices blending in a most pleasing way – which is not always the case no matter how good the two individual voices in a duet are. The satisfying blend was most noticeable in E non Giugono in Act 3.

Tosca given a choice of lust or death by the evil Scarpia sung by Claudio Otelli

Cavaradossi’s big moment, and perhaps the most well known aria in the entire opera, E lucevan le Stelle, sung as he awaits his execution and tries to write a last letter to Tosca only to be overwhelmed with memories and despair.

It is one of those arias where it is best to avoid reading the surtitles which, with the best will in the world, lose much in translation with its references to creaking garden gates, languorous caresses and stripping the beautiful form of its veils. Shakespeare it isn’t, and if it sounds the same in Italian, Cavaradossi would be lucky to pull even a Christmas cracker.

Much better to just listen and feel the emotion of a powerful aria which needs no translation to feel the anguish and Jones did not disappoint with a superb performance full of shades of feeling and despair ending in his defeated collapse to the ground to await his fate.

Tosca introduces Scarpia,  a baddy so bad he is the daddy baddy of opera, a man whose idea of mercy is to execute by firing squad rather than hanging.

For those unsure of the story Scarpia is the brutal chief of police in Rome and when political prisoner Angelotti, sung by Birmingham Conservatoire graduate Laurence Cole,  escapes he starts a manhunt to find him.

Angelotti is helped by old friend Cavaradossi, who is then captured, fter being unwittingly betrayed by Tosca, and, just so we know Scarpia is a baddy, our painter hero is then tortured to reveal Angelotti’s whereabouts – but all the torturing will end if Tosca lets Scarpia have his wicked way with her.

She agrees, but only as long as Cavaradossi is not executed and they have safe passage out of the country.

Scarpia with a bad case of the lusts, agrees, whereupon Tosca stabs him to death, which was not actually part of the deal but then again as Scarpia had no intention of letting Cavaradossi escape execution, then I suppose you could call it quits.

Claudio Otelli gave us a sinister Scarpia, with a fine baritone which sadly got a little lost at the end of Act 1 as the procession entered the church but he cranked it up in his dining room as he tried to seduce Tosca. His quietly understated, unhurried police chief had a menacing quality all of its own, here was a man who seemed in complete control of the misery he administered. There was talk in the first interval of whether he was frightening enough . . . but come Act 2 any doubts were dispelled, and let’s be honest, you have to find any bloke who has a walk-in torture chamber off his dining room as just a tad on the scary side. You would certainly think twice about going round to his house to have a few beers and watch the footy.

The three main characters are a joy to watch aided by a good cast of supports including William Robert Allenby as the  as the hard done by, at least he thought he was, and Sacristan, played by Michael Clifton-Thompson as Scarpia's agent.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s setting added to the drama and spectacle with a huge church, complete with a massive unfinished canvas of the Madonna, a cold, grey Scarpia’s apartment and the roof of the castle, complete with a giant grotesque while Mark Henderson’s lighting accentuates the light and dark shades of good and evil in what is a fine production.

As usual the WNO Orchestra under Simon Phillippo made their own splendid contribution to the evening making the most of Puccini’s sumptuous, dramatic score for a memorable performance. The opera is staged a again on Saturday Nov 16.

Roger Clarke

 

Divas to divers

It is not uncommon when the diva becomes the diver as Tosca leaps from the battlements to her death for it to end in knee and ankle injuries to the leading soprano.

Perhaps the most famous injury was celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt who was appearing in Victorien Sardou’s play, La Tosca, on which the opera is based, in a performance in Rio De Janeiro in 1905.

She injured her knee jumping from the parapet and the injury failed to heal properly, causing problems for ten years until eventually, in 1915,  gangrene set in and she had to have her right leg amputated.

That did not stop her performing successfully and to great acclaim with and without a wooden prosthetic limb until her death from kidney failure in 1923.

Welsh National Opera’s season at Birmingham Hippodrome continues with The Tudors, by Donizetti with Anna Bolena, Nov 13, Maria Stuarda, Nov 14 and Roberto Devereux, Nov 15.

Meanwhile, from the battlements  . . .

*****

WELSH National Opera signed off after a week in the city with this truly spectacular production of Puccini's gripping opera.

Beautifully sung arias, stunning sets, lighting and delightful music earned the company thunderous applause from the packed audience, and how they deserved it.

Mary Elizabeth Williams, who was named the Seattle Opera's Artist of the Year for the 2011/12 season, gave a memorable performance as Floria Tosca, the celebrated singer faced with a terrible choice when her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, is due for execution over his opposition to Baron Scarpia's brutal police regime in 1800 Rome.

The evil Scarpia's sexual demands for the man's freedom horrifies Tosca, and Claudio Otelli was so convincing in the role of the feared police chief that he was met with boos and hisses at the curtain call, followed by warm applause.

Gwyn Hughes Jones excelled as Cavaradossi, tortured by Scarpia's henchmen but refusing to reveal where escaped political prisoner Cesare Angelotti was hiding even though his silence meant he would face a firing squad.

The dramatic finale when Tosca, having knifed Scarpia, realises she has failed to save her lover and leaps to her death from the prison battlements, is awesome.

Lothar Koenigs conducted the splendid orchestra and he opera was directed by Michael Blakemore.

Paul Marston

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