United Kingdom Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, OperaHerts Chorus, Choirs of Watford Grammar School for Boys and James Rich (percussion) were directed from the piano by Phillip Thomas. Clarendon Muse, Watford, Hertfordshire. 4.3.2017. (JPr)
Floria Tosca – Lee Bisset
Mario Cavaradossi – Stephen Aviss
Baron Scarpia – Stuart Pendred
Cesare Angelotti – Matthew Tomko
Sacristan – Malcolm Rivers
Spoletta – Andrew Rees
Sciarrone/Jailer – Nick Fowler
Shepherd boy – Vitalijs Strelcuks
Phillip Thomas is described in the programme as ‘a vocal coach, casting associate, record producer, accompanist, vocal consultant and conductor’. He is world-renowned for all of that and is also clearly the inspirational music director of OperaHerts, which he founded in his hometown of Watford to bring – as their blurb suggests ‘first rate opera performances to the Hertfordshire area’ through ‘concerts of opera excerpts, concert performances of opera, masterclasses and workshops and community events’. Often involving – as here – world-class opera singers performing with a chorus made up of local residents and students from Watford Grammar School for Boys. This concert took place at Clarendon Muse – the home of Watford School of Music – which is on the school’s grounds.
OperaHerts uses only cost-effective piano accompaniment at present, but no praise can be higher for Phillip Thomas as for good stretches of the evening I forgot that the only instrument playing actually was a piano. In fact, he was helped by percussionist James Rich with his snare drum vividly adding Puccini’s atmosphere of the impending executions to Acts II and III. Thomas’s virtuosic keyboard playing – by turns dramatic or sensitive and always attentive to the needs of the singers – often made all the other missing instruments seem irrelevant. For many stretches of the music it sounded as if there were two pianos and not just one!
Phillip Thomas also genially introduced the opera with many interesting historical facts, musical details and anecdotes for those very familiar with Tosca or – like many in the audience – hearing it for the first time. He began by saying how we would be hearing ‘opera on the grandest scale with all the ingredients to make a quite human melodrama; love, lust, passion, envy, humour, sarcasm, church, murder, execution, and suicide’ adding ‘not bad for 2½ hours is it?’. As Thomas explained over the course of the evening the love triangle between Cavaradossi, Tosca and Scarpia – outwardly a tragic and simplistic story – is a basically political one: Tosca, the beautiful Italian opera diva, first says too much and betrays her painter lover into the hands of the unscrupulous chief of police, then kills Scarpia to save Cavaradossi. All of them are ultimately doomed, and the theatrical conventions here leave no emotional stone unturned. When Puccini wrote the opera in 1898, he based it on a play by Victorien Sardou, La Tosca, written for – and popularized by – Sarah Bernhardt which mirrored the political turmoil engulfing Italy throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I appreciate money is undoubtedly an issue and how for the development of the singers involved the operas need to be sung in the original language. However, if the audience is to keep coming back to – potentially – unfamiliar works they do need to be even more informed about what they are hearing than Phillip Thomas’s erudite commentary allowed them to be. Whilst projecting the entire translation may not be possible, the best I have seen involved silent movie captions/intertitles and some juxtaposing of English with the original for many of the important arias. Also while I am not advocating a semi-staging, just a few props might have helped in the pivotal moments. For example, in Act I there could have been a basket (the food we hear the Sacristan has left for Cavaradossi) and the all-important fan which fires Tosca’s jealousy, as well as, in Act II, the writing of the supposed safe conduct and a knife for Tosca to wield as she mimes killing Scarpia.
I know the opera of course – though not as well as Phillip Thomas – and I could focus purely on the performances of a remarkable line-up of talent, young and old. Lee Bisset is clearly already an experienced Tosca and hardly glanced at the score on the music stand in front of her. She lived and breathed every moment as the smouldering and passionate diva, singing with her trademark brightly gleaming soprano. Her intensity and passion – allied to astute acting skills – made for a Tosca who was suitably flirty, vulnerable and vehemently strong-willed by turns. A highlight of her secure vocal performance was the Act II ‘Vissi d’arte’ (I lived for art) which was eloquent and moving.
Stephen Aviss has a bright, forthright, and Italianate tone, and made good use of it to portray Cavaradossi as a youthful idealist and ardent lover. His rendition of ‘E lucevan le stelle’ (‘And the stars were shining’) in Act III had deep heartfelt pathos. Stuart Pendred has a virile baritone – more bass-baritone – voice clearly able to ride the tumult from a clangerous piano and resonant chorus during in the ‘Te Deum’ at the end of Act I, whilst matching Tosca’s Act II outbursts note for note. Perhaps there is not much more to Scarpia than being a sinister, manipulative bully, yet I felt Pendred was only a one-dimensional villain with a single purpose. Puccini in Scarpia’s ‘Ha più forte sapore’ – when he sings that his idea of making love involves conquest and subjugation – suggests there is more to be explored.
Among the smaller roles, Malcolm Rivers rolled back the years as the disapproving Sacristan, singing with his familiar rich and full baritone. As the ill-fated fugitive, Angelotti, Matthew Tomko revealed a majestic bass voice and – in the little Puccini gives him – his acting and singing were beyond reproach as he elicited our sympathy for his character who is on the run from Scarpia’s not-so-secret police. Andrew Rees was suitably unctuous as one of Scarpia’s henchmen Spoletta, aided and abetted by Nick Fowler performing admirably as Sciarrone, as well as, the Jailer in Act III. Also boy soprano Vitalijs Strelcuks, a student at the grammar school, controlled his nerves splendidly to deliver the shepherd boy’s plaintive lament at the start of Act III.