United Kingdom Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Ensemble Cymru / Jonathan Lyness (conductor). Theatre Clwyd Mold, 24.3.2019. (RJF)
Director and Designer – Richard Studer
Lighting designer – Dan Saggars
Cesare Angelotti – Joseph Padfield
Sacristan – Emyr Wyn Jones
Mario Cavaradossi – Charne Rochard
Floria Tosca – Elin Pritchard
Baron Scarpia – Nicholas Folwell
Spoletta – Jonathan Cooke
Sciarrone/Gaoler – Matthew Tilley
Shepherd Boy – Alys Mererid Roberts
Never frightened of a challenge, and now in its thirtieth year, Mid Wales Opera came on its annual visit to Theatr Clwyd, Mold, with its production of Puccini’s Tosca. Never frightened of a challenge, it followed last year’s Eugene Onegin, when my visit was thwarted by heavy snowfall as the Beast from the East neared its demise. Tosca, in which Puccini and his librettist laboured, with many quarrels, over the libretto for nearly four years is now one of the most performed operas in the repertoire and is a challenge in staging and casting for even large companies. It is is based on a play by the French poet Victorien Sardou that the composer saw when it was touring Italy in 1889. As Budden (Puccini. His Life and Works, O.U.P. p181) puts it, he was one of those authors whose oeuvres achieved an international recognition during their lifetime. After some vacillation Puccini obtained the rights to turn the work into an opera in 1895. However, turning the wordy French play into a succinct Italian opera took four years, during which the composer, not unusually, repeatedly argued with his librettists, and his publisher, and which significantly delayed the completion of the libretto.
Tosca was premiered at La Scala, Milan, on January 14th, 1900. It was at a time of political unrest in Rome, and the premiere was delayed for a day for fear of disturbances. Despite indifferent reviews from the critics the opera was an immediate success with the public. While cerebral critics have frequently dismissed the opera as a facile melodrama, musicologist Joseph Kerman famously called it a ‘shabby little shocker’, the power of its score and the inventiveness of its orchestration have been widely acknowledged and the work remains one of the most frequently performed of all operas. According to the libretto, the action of Tosca occurs in Rome in June 1800. Sardou dates it more precisely as taking place on the afternoon, evening, and early morning of 17th and 18th June 1800. The date is specifically designated by the arrival, in Act II, of the news of the French victory at the battle of Marengo, near Alexandria.
The setting is very specific in Puccini’s original as to the venues of the three acts. Here the sets of the first two met those criteria with realistic creations of the church interior becoming Scarpia’s apartments in the Palace Farnese by the expedient of two altars becoming tables at which Scarpia sat and from one of which, later, Tosca found the knife she uses to kill Scarpia. The ladder up to Cavaradossi’s painting was the means by which Tosca later got onto the castle walls for her suicide leap, or, in this evening’s case, walk off, after an earlier injury jumping onto a mattress. The third act used the back walls and overall this was a very straightforward use of the stage.
Ensemble Cymru, Resident Ensemble at Bangor University and Venue Cymru (Llandudno), idiomatically provided the music. This small ensemble included a harp and – despite its restricted number – produced a glorious entry to the work before toning down for the singers. Conductor Jonathan Lyness kept up the balance between the lyric and dramatic facets of the music wholly admirably, one or two overloud passages excepted, where he briefly drowned his soloists. Of the latter the first thing to be said is that, without exception, they knew what they were portraying and the part their role took in the realisation of the whole.
Matters started well with Emyr Wyn Jones’s well-acted and strong mellifluous vocal contribution as the Sacristan. Joseph Padfield as the tortured Angelotti played his part well and also sang with feeling. As the opera’s hero, and artist, Cavaradossi, Charne Rochard sang rather too strongly at times. His tenor could gainfully have expressed the emotions of the role with less volume in his opening ‘Recondita armonia’ along with more of the graceful phrasing and modulation he showed in ‘E lucevan la stele’ in Act III. As the evil Scarpia, the highly experienced Nicholas Folwell left me equivocal. Whilst, of all the singers, his diction was the best, there seemed a lack of vocal depth and sonority. Perhaps I am getting too used to bass-baritones in the role; he certainly lacked some vocal malevolence in his interpretation. I could not quibble about Elin Pritchard’s singing and acting in the title role. Fulsome of tone she did full justice to Puccini’s music in all its dramatic and lyrical demands. Yes, there were moments when her diction, like that of her colleagues, could have been better, but allowance must be made in respect of comprehension when the English vowels and consonants of the translation are not well matched to the Italian that Puccini heard in his mind as he composed the music: and then altered a few times!
Whatever my thoughts, the Sunday evening audience of a full theatre seating around 550 persons, were justifiably and suitably enthusiastic and rewarding in their applause. Major works such as Tosca, done on a budget shoestring – even allowing for support from the Arts Council Wales – are welcome training grounds for young artists to make their way in a very competitive profession.
Robert J Farr
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