David Hart reviews Tosca by the Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome.
Tosca is a great drama, even without Puccini.
With a linear story that focuses on just three main characters (others exist mainly to move things along) it has a clarity and directness many operas lack; and Michael Blakemore’s 1992 production, here under the aegis of revival director Benjamin Davis, has lost none of its ability to evoke powerful emotions.
Of course, what could be regarded as a familiar narrative of love, obsession, betrayal and death is elevated by Puccini’s glorious music to the heights of Grand Guignol melodrama, and in this respect there is much to admire, though not completely.
On Tuesday Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Cavaradossi displayed a hugely imposing vocal presence, which in ‘E lucevan le stelle’ and ‘Recondita armonia’ he tamed into expressions of lyrical subtlety and gentleness. As the doomed-to-die Tosca, Mary Elizabeth Williams seemed a bit tetchy at the start, with more reliance on decibels than vocal subtlety; but as the plot developed so did her character, resulting in a lustrous ‘Vissi d’arte’ where the progression from quiet introspection to heart-wrenching passion was finely judged.
The Scarpia of Claudio Otelli was less convincing. Instead of an evil, terrifying power-mad monster he seemed more of a sneering (and unusually elegant) cold fish, and his showcase Act One ‘Gia, mi decon venal’ and ‘Te Deum’ numbers went largely for nothing.
Simon Phillippo conducted a WNO Orchestra in excellent dramatic fettle – and the chorus contributions, especially from the children, were very lively.
Repeated on Saturday.