Puccini’s TOSCA by Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre. 15/10/2013

Puccini’s TOSCA by Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre. 15/10/2013

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The annual visit of the Welsh National Opera to Oxford is one of the highlights of our cultural year. People bus in from all over the area and it is no exaggeration to say that this sort of top-class production is one good reason for living in Oxford!

WNO’s latest production of Tosca is well up to what we expect. It is exciting, spectacular, and full of glorious singing and fabulous orchestral magic. This production does justice to one of the favourite operas of all time, opening in a mood of gentle comedy and gradually rising in tension to a terrible tragic climax. Gwyn Hugh Jones as the painter, Cavaradossi, showed from the very first moments that he was man enough for the rôle. With heroically sustained long notes and noble phrasing, he soared through his first aria. His performance was vigorous and energetic, making his crushed appearance in Act 3 all the more shocking. As Tosca, the American soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, excelled as both an actress and a singer. Her luscious tone and lyricism were a sheer joy. Seductive with her lover, fiery in confrontations with Scarpia (the tall, imposing Italian, Claudio Otelli) and convulsed with misery by the brutal torture in Act 2, she was immensely versatile. As the Baron revealed his unscrupulous designs her, she struggled visibly, downing a flagon of wine and toying with the carving knife twice before finding the courage, or desperation, to finally use it on the villain. Her “Vissi d’arte” was deeply-felt and the moment when she confesses to Cavaradossi that she has murdered Scarpia was just fabulous. The pink dress she wears in Act 1 was rather demure but replaced with a more vivid crimson in Acts 2 and 3, symbolizing the blood and tragedy that ensue.

The part of Angelotti, the ill-fated political prisoner, was sung by the understudy Laurence Cole, who carried it off splendidly and no-one would ever have known. The orchestral sounds throughout were sumptuous, with a wonderful cello in Act 3 and haunting clarinet solos. The real church bells that are one of WNO’s notable assets did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

This production has some inspiring sets, each one dominated by a piece of symbolic statuary. In Act 1, set in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome,

it is a massive crucifix, legs only visible, symbolizing faith and mercy. In Act 2, set in Scarpia’s apartments, it is a leering satyr, with naked torso, symbolizing lust. In Act 3, set on the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo, it is an avenging angel, with a sword, symbolizing fate and nemesis.

This is great opera and it is also a wonderful night out. No opera-lover (apart from a few with severe coughs) should miss this outstanding production while it is on tour. We look forward keenly to the other productions in the current season.

Julia Gasper.

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