Tosca

Giacomo Puccini
Welsh national Opera
Bristol Hippodrome
(2006)

It was, as Billy Idol had it, "hot in the city", unbearably so, but the prospect of Welsh National Opera performing Puccini's "shabby little shocker" was just too enticing a prospect to deter the sudorific spectators who largely filled Bristol Hippodrome as the temperature soared. Packed with more hooks than a fisherman's hamper, Tosca in gloriously tuneful and as good an entrée as the non-aficionado could find to - what can be - the forbidding world of opera.

The story, steeped in sex and death, is thrilling and mercifully straightforward. (Critic Jonathan Keates, in an essay in the accompanying programme, judges it the most theatrically effective of all operas.) The year is 1800; the place Rome. The republic of Naples has been defeated but, as the opera opens, Angelotti, former consul of the republic, has escaped from the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome where he had been imprisoned by royalists loyal to the Queen of Naples. Angelotti's sister has helped him to escape and seek refuge in the family chapel where Mario Cavaradossi, a painter, is working. Baron Scapia, villainous police chief for the Queen of Naples, sets out in hot pursuit.

The outrage which greeted the opera's premiere more than a century ago, was, like the similar reaction to Ibsen's Ghosts, around a decade before it, prompted by what was seen as the highly immoral content of the work. In the case of Tosca it was Scapia's attempts to force Tosca to submit sexually by threatening to have Cavaradossi, her amorato, put to death, which offended.

The power of the plot to shock has, of course, long since dissipated, but the sense of lust breaching the banks of acceptable behaviour remains, most powerfully at the end of Act One as Scapia sings, "Tosca, you make me forget God himself" in counterpoint to the congregation's "Te Deum" inside the church.

It is a terrific piece of theatre and one given full weight by this production, a revival by Benjamin Davis of Michael Blakemore's 1992 staging. Each act is set in a great Roman building and impressive sets by Ashley Martin-Davis, artfully lit by Mark Henderson, the growing shadows in Act Two signalling the tragedy to come, convey an appropriate sense of oppressive monumentality.

Rafael Rojas, who took over at Cavaradossi from Dennis O'Neill following the WNO Cardiff dates, is winningly ardent, but, together with Deborah Riedel as Tosca, achieves little sense of either intimacy or passion. In the early scenes too, there was a lack of a sense of urgency and excitement generated by the Orchestra of the WNO under the conductorship of Julian Smith, the strings in particular lacking bite. Peter Sidhom, as Scapia, initially also seems muted, but in Act Two, set in Palazzo Farnese, finds a real sense of brutish menace.

Is Tosca melodramatic?, Blakemore asks himself in a programme note - of course!, he replies. But you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be swept up by it all and, in this revival by the WNO, it proved largely very difficult to resist.

Reviewer: Pete Wood