Upon stepping into the New Theatre, it would have been easy to start noting trite remarks about its hidden splendour, its outlandish décor and, most notably, its sad absence of Oxford students… but dwelling on the location’s form rather than its content would, in this case, be a great injustice. It was Tosca who took the ornate stage last night, and Tosca whose magnificence transported the audience far from their luxuriant red seats.
Indeed, the orchestra allows little time for reflection on our surroundings, launching us straight into the first act with no overture to speak of. The first scene is as dramatic as anyone could wish for; we are presented with Cesare Angelotti (Laurence Cole, standing in for Daniel Grice) fleeing for sanctuary to painter and fellow republican Mario Cavaradossi (Gwyn Hughes Jones). Cole’s movement is, admittedly, a little laboured, but all is forgiven when the pair begin their exchange. Hughes Jones’ tenor is large and full, and commands our attention at once. His passion for his cause and his lover are sincere and earnest, and the flame in his arioso is unmistakable.
It is Floria Tosca herself, however, who steals the show. A remarkably complex and immensely demanding role, Tosca requires subtle grasp of a vast range of emotional response – and a colossal voice with it. Mary Elizabeth Williams does not disappoint. Her arias are rich, clear and inescapably arresting; it is impossible to remain unmoved even within the first few minutes (and this when the opera is still relatively light in tone); by the end of the first act, we are left reeling and breathless. Her upper range is peerless. The affection of Mario and Tosca has quiet tones of distress from the outset, and is indeed “the profound tragedy of profound love”: Tosca’s furious jealousy does cause genuine torment, but equally we laugh at its happy resolution. It is the sincerity of her passions which proves her undoing, and we are not inclined to doubt that piety, that fearsome honesty, even when it is misdirected and too quickly provoked.
This is testament to Michael Blakemore’s direction, which proves thoughtful and intensive. Of particular note is the scene after Tosca’s awful deed, in which it would have been easy to let her succumb to excessive angst and proud, dramatic torment – but to do so would, as with any rendition of Tosca, have been the opera’s undoing. Instead, we see a Tosca who is terrified, panicked and utterly graceless, hardly able to walk or breathe, and infinitely more sympathetic than she might have been otherwise.
As for our villain, Baron Scarpia (Claudio Otelli) is convincingly sinister and domineering: his theatrical performance is a highlight of the production. There is a beautiful timbre to his baritone, although this is sometimes lost to a slight lack of projection, particularly when the pitch drops a little. Nonetheless, his portrayal of misogyny and manipulation is masterful, and his proclamation that he will see Cavaradossi on the gallows and Tosca in his arms goes some way to proving the scope of the old adage – opera, as with literature, is only ever about sex and death. Fortunately for Puccini, he’s got quite a good grasp of subtlety.
No performer is helped by the fact that the orchestra pit of the New Theatre is actually placed rather high, but it is to the orchestra’s great credit that this does not prove problematic. The traditional battle between soloist and string section is nowhere to be heard, and this is refreshing. Lothar Koenigs draws out the most delicate, beautiful leitmotifs alongside the most tremendous crescendos, and the music is far more than an accompaniment. It’s always tempting to allow a little give in opera, to say that it’s all right if either the music or the acting isn’t quite ideal, because we can’t demand perfection in both. To adopt that approach here, however, would be patronising in the extreme.
The Welsh National Opera’s production of Tosca is, as you’ve probably guessed, remarkable. It captures theatrical subtlety and high drama within the same breath, and nobody left the theatre with dry eyes or oxygen to spare. Opera is an art form horribly neglected by most people under the age of forty, but Tosca is truly a sterling point of entry. And, with a limited number of tour tickets at £5 for students, it’s probably worth taking the leap.
The Welsh National Opera’s production of Tosca is, alongside The Tudors, on tour around the UK until the 30th November. Tickets and more information available here.
PHOTOS/ Robert Workman for the Welsh National Opera