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Puccini, Tosca: (Revival Premiere)
Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Julian Smith, conductor, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 17.05.2006 (GPu)

Conductor: Julian Smith
Director: Michael Blakemore
Revival Director: Benjamin Davis
Designer: Ashley Martin-Davies
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Chorus Master: Donald Nally

Cavaradossi: Dennis O’Neill
Tosca: Deborah Riedel
Scarpia: Peter Sidhom
Sacristan: Alan Fairs
Angelotti: Daniel Chadwick
Spoletta: Michael Clifton-Thomas
Sciarrone: James Robinson-May
Shepherd Boy: Paula Bradbury
Gaoler: Jack O’Kelly

For all the condescension with which certain critics have treated it (Joseph Kerman’s “shabby, little shocker” being only the most famous of the put-downs), the fact remains that Tosca is a remarkable theatre-piece. It is difficult to produce and sing it so badly as altogether to ruin its archetypal stage/musical images of love and death, sadism and sex, anti-clericalism and political intimation. But, on the other hand, it is also difficult to produce and sing it so well that it blazes with the full power implicit in its score and libretto.

This revival of Michael Blakemore’s 1992 production was certainly a long way away from effecting Tosca’s ‘ruin’. It remained a pretty powerful dramatic machine. But neither did it entirely catch fire.

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 being archaeological reproductions, approximate to the architecture of the real places, make an important contribution to the effect of the production. (One oddity – why is the painting of Mary Magdalen, on which Cavaradossi is supposedly working in Act I, in a style entirely inappropriate to 1800?).

Another important contribution was made by Mark Henderson’s very effective lighting. Tosca is an opera full of important noises heard from off-stage – Tosca calling Cavaradossi’s name off-stage, the cannon-shot from the Castel Sant’Angelo (both in act I), the singing of Tosca in the pseudo-Paisiello cantata, the cries of the tortured Cavaradossi (in Act II), the song of the Shepherd Boy in Act III, to name but a few. Henderson conjured up some striking moments of light off-stage to complement this – the blaze of sunlight when the door of the church is opened (not least at the entrance of Scarpia); the lurid light from the torture chamber in Act II, the dawn beyond the Castel in Act III. That the first of these two both came from almost the same point made for what one might call a light-motif to go with what is effectively Puccini’s use of leitmotif (or reminiscence motif) in the orchestral writing.


But most of this would fall flat, of course, without sufficient quality on the musical side. As Cavaradossi, Dennis O’Neill contributed some intelligent singing and was well supported (as were all the singers) by Julian Smith and the Orchestra of the WNO. O’Neill has been an important singer for some years now and I have taken a good deal of pleasure in his work. But a few signs of wear and tear are now becoming noticeable in the voice. In quieter passages he sings with an attractive tone and considerable Italianate grace; in louder passages there is a sense of strain and coarseness in the voice. So, for example, the early part of ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was beautifull, its climax rather less so. Deborah Riedel brought a variety of tone and dynamics, assured control, to her singing. ‘Vissi d’arte’ was compelling, its sense of inner questioning as real as the outer beauty of voice. Peter Sidhom was an authoritative Scarpia who, like O’Neill and Riedel had an obvious understanding of the necessary musical idiom. He also strikingly looked the part (which, in all truth, couldn’t entirely be said of the other two principals).

Most of the great scenes came off pretty well; the tension of Act II was well sustained; the heavy-handed ironies of Act III were absurdly poignant. Smith and the Orchestra handled the rich orchestral score with panache, commitment and, where necessary, appropriate gravity.

All in all, a good night in the theatre, but short of being a great one. When I got home I played myself an hour or so of the 1953 de Sabata recording, with Callas, di Stefano and Gobbi. An unfair comparison, no doubt … but it served to ‘define’ that full blaze which wasn’t quite to be encountered in Cardiff.

Glyn Pursglove

Photographs © Clive Barda




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