WNO’s None too “Shabby” Tosca Shocks as it Should.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Tosca: (Revival Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 21.9.2013 (GPu)

Tosca: Mary Elizabeth Williams
Cavaradossi: Gwyn Hughes Jones
Scarpia: Claudio Otelli
Sacristan: William Robert Allenby
Angelotti: Daniel Grice
Spoletta: Michael Clifton-Thomas
Sciarrone: George Newton-Fitzgerald
Shepherd Boy: Paula Bradbury
Gaoler: Jack O’Kelly
Director: Michael Blakemore
Revival Director: Benjamin Davis
Designer: Ashley Martin-Davies
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris

To call an opera production ‘venerable’ on the occasion of its revival is often little more than a euphemistic way of saying that it is old-fashioned. Michael Blakemore’s production, first staged in October 1992, and extensively revived and toured since then, is genuinely ‘worthy of respect’ and is also, I suppose, old-fashioned. But in its contrast with the production strategy adopted in WNO’s recent versions of Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda it comes as a happy release. Where the austere sets (and much in the behaviour required of its singers) of those productions effectively ignored (indeed travestied) authentic details of the historical context(s), Blakemore’s production is almost archaeological in its attempted reproduction of the physical nature and mores of the Rome of 1800.

Puccini, as we know, cared deeply about such matters, worrying about the exact pitch of the relevant church bells in Rome and the proper form of the procession at the close of Act I. The specifics of location and time are important to Tosca – in ways that are fascinatingly discussed in Susan Vandiver Nicassio’s book Tosca’s Rome: The Play and the Opera in Historical Perspective (1999). When, back in 1976 Gianfranco de Bosio directed a film of the opera making use of the real settings of its events (the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo), it wasn’t the pointless gimmick it would be with most operas. So, too, Ashley Martin-Davis’s thoroughly traditional sets that, without quite being archaeological reproductions, approximate to the architecture of the real places – the church of Sant’ Andrea delle Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castell Sant’Angelo –  make an important contribution to the effect of the production. Indeed the solidity and realism of these sets can, as it were, submerge (and even sink) the singers on the evidence of one or two earlier performances – with different singers – that I have seen. But with a cast as good as the one assembled on this occasion and rather more in the way of physicality and stage-blood than in previous incarnations of the production, if my memory doesn’t mislead me, there was no danger of that on a fine evening of considerable theatrical power. (My only quibble regarding historical fidelity is that the painting of Mary Magdalene, on which Cavaradossi is supposedly working in Act I, is in a style entirely inappropriate to 1800). Mark Henderson’s very effective lighting works powerfully at more than one stage in proceedings: in the repeated blazes of off-stage sunlight when the door of Sant’ Andrea delle Valle is opened (not least at the entrance of Scarpia, so that our first sight of him is as an ominous silhouette); the lurid light from the torture chamber in Act II; or the dawn beyond and below the Castel in Act III, when the growing light counterpoints the moral darkness of the action and might also be seen as symbolic of the political regeneration for which Angelotti may have been working.

Mary Elizabeth Williams was a very fine Tosca, convincingly temperamental in Act I and, with an underlying edge of vulnerability able to persuade one that she played the diva out of an insecurity not overcome by her professional success – thus retaining the audience’s sympathy despite her unreasonableness. Williams was movingly passionate in Acts II and III, not afraid to dirty her tone and phrasing, but also able to be ringingly clear and pure of voice, as emotional occasion demanded. This was a performance of immense emotional commitment, without any loss of musical or stage discipline. How powerfully she communicated with the audience was evidenced by the rapturous reception she was given at the end. Her Cavaradossi, Gwyn Hughes Jones, was a less natural actor, and commanded less flexibility of voice, but generally sang well and forcefully, hitting some fine high notes and riding the orchestra well. Yet Hughes failed to integrate his contributions into the larger dramatic texture of the whole as completely as Williams did. My previous experience of the singing of Claudio Otelli had impressed me, so I was rather disappointed by a relatively weak performance on this occasion. He seemed vocally underpowered at times and though there was menace in his reading of the character there was no point at which he really made one believe that this Scarpia was a man “before whom all Rome trembled” (avanti . . .  tremava tutta Roma!), as Tosca sings having killed him. Otelli’s Scarpia was insidious rather than brutal.

In the lesser roles, William Robert Allenby’s cameo as the Sacristan introduced some not irrelevant touches of humour in illustrating that superstition and hypocrisy which encouraged Cavaradossi and other republicans to see the church as a reactionary  enemy. Daniel Grice was a plausible and effective Angelotti (though his limp came across as unduly theatrical). As Spoletta and Sciarrone, Michael Clifton-Thomas and George Newton-Fitzgerald were ruthless and unthinking (as well as unfeeling) functionaries, the sort of men on whom police states depend for their success

Lothar Koenigs and the orchestra of WNO gave an account of Puccini’s largely fine orchestral score (perhaps a bit weaker in the last Act) which was both powerful and, on the occasions when such a quality was demanded, subtle.

The whole made for a powerful evening in the theatre, a potent fusion of voice and action, sound and sight which did something approaching justice to Puccini’s work, which still retains its power to shock (without, pace Kerman, being “shabby” in the way it does so) – and retaining more than a little continuing contemporary relevance. Above all I shall, I suspect, remember the evening for Mary Elizabeth Williams’s performance as Tosca.

Glyn Pursglove