Every opera company requires productions of their big hitters to become repertoire staples if they want to ensure a healthy bank balance. Welsh National Opera has done better than most to be able to pull out strong La Boheme’s, Dali inspired Magic Flute’s and classically Oriental Madame Butterfly’s out of the closet every few years and delight audiences anew. The formula by and large is to play straight, solid takes on the tales that tell the narrative cleanly and don’t leave its audience questioning why this Carmen is set on a council estate in Bradford. Michael Blakemore’s production of Tosca plays out with a straight bat, period appropriate, detailed sets and clear delineation of character. He lets Puccini work his magic, each act building in tension and wrapping up on cliff-hangers that make you long for the next act like your latest Netflix binge.
It’s a production that is pleasingly realised then and one that is careful to allow musicianship to take centre stage. Claire Rutter has sung Tosca for opera companies all around the world and her take on the diva is sure and steady. She is effective as the jealous mistress in the first act, spitting out her distaste of her lover Cavaradossi’s painting of another women but takes us on a journey that turns her into a form of avenging angel. Her second act aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ is a moving evocation of a women fearing her God has abandoned her and her third act reconciliation with her tortured lover and then damning realisation that she has been tricked are as movingly acted as vividly sung.
Making his role debut as Scarpia Mark S Doss is deep of voice but is not yet chilling enough as the sadistic chief of police that arrests the painter and then dangles this pawn to try to seduce Tosca. His ‘Va Tosca’ sung over the Te Deum lacked sufficient power to fully send shivers down the spine. His interpretation played up the Inspector as refined gentleman; decked up in his periwig and sipping glasses of wine; and seems less keen to turn him into the sadistic monster that Puccini promises.
Of the trio it’s Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Carvadossi who is the standout, his thrilling tenor ringing out on ‘Vittoria! Vittoria!’ and finding more lyrical tones in his third act showstopper ‘E Lucevan Le Stelle’. His acting is broad brush-stroked but effective, light as a lark in Act 1, bloodily defiant in the second and resigned in the third. Jones, like Rutter, is a veteran in the role and he conveys that in a performance rich and true and one that deserved the ringing cheers he received at the company bow.
Timothy Burke brings out the best of the WNO Orchestra, the strings finding untold depths and the set pieces ringing with absolute clarity. The chorus have rarely sounded better than there work in the first act religious song ‘Te Deum’. Ashley Martin-Davies’ sets conjured an impressively sturdy Sant’Andrea dell Valle and a luxurious home for Scarpia’s devious machinations. Mark Henderson’s lighting came into its own with an impressive third act blood red sundown as the bodies come to rest.
This is a safe but incredibly sturdy version of one of opera’s big hitters. It ensures one would suspect WNO countless revivals in the future. If the musicianship stays this good, few will complain.
Tosca plays another performance at Bristol Hippodrome on the 13 April and then moves to Venue Cymru 18 & 20 April