Tosca is one of Puccini’s great masterpieces and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production brings the drama to glorious life.
The setting is the eve of the Battle of Marengo as Napoleon’s army caused disarray throughout the city states of Italy. It is a moving tale of love, personal freedom, ideals, betrayal, and redemption. Tosca (Martina Serafin), Rome’s most beautiful opera singer is in love with a painter, Cavaradossi (Marcello Giordani). Act I, placed in a cramped, split-level chapel with the altar above and the crypt below feels too small for this much drama. However, despite the limited space, the soprano and tenor movingly portray the tensions and placations of two young lovers. But yet, the waters are not calm as political betrayal is underfoot in the form of a dissident escaping from prison and begging Cavaradossi to aid hm in his escape.
Enter the villain. What a vile, putrid individual is the Baron Scarpia (Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo making his Covent Garden debut). He even purports to prefer to have his women on the run from him rather than swooning in romance for him. It is the fear and hatred that wets his lustful appetite. Charming. Uusitalo was so effectively repugnant in his portrayal of this loathing man that he makes the viewer’s skin crawl. While chasing down the escaped political prisoner, he arrests Cavaradossi in the two-fold aim of finding the prisoner and sating his lust for Tosca. To save her lover, Tosca must make the ultimate sacrifice to the hated Baron Scarpia. Serafin’s portrayal of this woman’s inner turmoil was elegant and emotive, her warm voice growing as the anguish in heart at the thought of being betrayed by her beloved god crescendos.
Despite the current cast being a warm up for the power cast to come, their performances were moving. The vocal performances where unusually matched in theatrical capability by this production’s stars. Serafin’s shining star of Tosca evoked great passion, sympathy, and admiration. She gave an accomplished performance. The only critique was that at times she felt encumbered by her overly elaborate costumes. Giordani’s Cavaradossi was a well-rounded, traditionally Italian tenor. Uusitalo’s Scarpia while menacing and imposing in stature, did eventually feel a bit repetitive and caged in by his staging.
Antonio Pappano’s conducting draws Puccini’s precision and passion from this talented orchestra. The elaborate, gothic set designs of Paul Brown are as powerful and dramatic as the plot. The monumental statue, moody settings, and in particular leaving Scarpia’s study nearly bookless were all well-chosen for dramatic effect. I left the production pondering what we are expected to give sacrifice love and how hope, in the face of great adversity, can make believers of us all.
I knew I was going to the theatre last night but I had no idea which theatre, nor did I know what I was going to watch. This is absolutely true. Only when my friend (who had unfortunately purchased the tickets) went under Waterloo Bridge and rounded a corner did I know Waterloo East Theatre even existed. On top of that I had never heard of the Accidental Death of an Anarchist before. The reason I’m giving all of this seemingly extraneous background information is so you, as the reader, will know I went into this play with absolutely no preconceptions. My palate was clean, and I definitely wasn’t expecting what can only be described as some form of terrible assault on the senses that followed the moment the lights went down.
As I say, I had no knowledge of the script beforehand but watching the play I could see that it is a phenomenal, relevant piece of work and with the right direction the outrageous, witty, satirical complexities of this play would shine. Tragically for me and the rest of the audience, this interpretation of the play was about as intelligent and witty as an elephant on ice skates. This was made abundantly clear by the performances. The supporting roles of the police Captain and the Inspector were so wooden I wondered if I was actually watching a puppet show. These were only tempered by Nicholas Kempsey who played the main character of the madman and con artist. He managed to take the role so unnecessarily far I found myself watching something akin to am-dram pantomime, wondering at what point Widow Twanky would make an appearance. Ten minutes later I was praying she would just to break up the strange monotony of Kempsey’s over the top tics and this odd sort of bark he’d perform like some terrible catch phrase.
I tried to think of something redeeming about Accidental Death of an Anarchist but the problem for the play is that it is a dialogue lead piece, reliant on solid performances and mature direction. Since these two elements had clearly decided to take an extended holiday, the play for me was a total let down, however the complimentary glass of Sauvignon Blanc in the interval was very refreshing, although I probably would have preferred an entire bottle!