This semi-staged performance of Tosca opens the annual Llangollen Eisteddfod in splendid style, lit by the star power of local hero Sir Bryn Terfel and Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, with Lithuanian Kristian Benedikt completing the trio. This is an opera that stands or falls by the commitment the three principal singers bring to their roles: none were found wanting. Benedikt gave a fine, plangently voiced, if slightly generalised portrayal of the painter-freethinker Cavaradossi. Cavaradossi, it should be emphasised, is a passive hero – a man to whom things happen rather than a man who makes things happen – and if he sometimes comes off worst that may have a lot to do with the prolonged Scarpia-Tosca confrontation that powers the opera.  For all that, though, Benedikt’s account of the reference arias – “Recondita Armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle” – were an unalloyed pleasure to listen to.  

Kristine Opolais © Tatyana Vlasova
Kristine Opolais
© Tatyana Vlasova

Scarpia has become one of Terfel’s signature roles, and it is a tribute to his abilities as an actor that he can encompass the corrupt police chief’s villainy as naturally as he did the Figaros and Leporellos that populated his earlier career. There is no inherent nobility in Terfel’s Scarpia: this is a portrait of a thuggish arriviste (one who, in all probability, bought his title) and the bass-baritone uses his height and presence to flesh out the character most effectively. Although the role hardly stretches him vocally, he gives a magnificently sleazy account of the Gloria and his Act Two monologue (a sort of “Credo” along the lines of the one Boito gives to Jago in Verdi’s Otello) was wonderfully internalised.  

The centrepiece of the opera is the long dialogue between heroine and antagonist in Act Two, an intimate scene which (you might have thought) would have been lost from being staged in the unintimate setting of the Pavillion marquee. But thanks to Amy Lane’s involving stage direction, it fairly crackled with the requisite tension as the two principals struck dramatic sparks off each other. 

This was very much a production without decor rather than a concert performance, with projections on screen supplying a Castle Sant’Angelo, Scarpia’s headquarters and even a firing squad at the end! But not everything about it was ideal: too much of the action – the most dramatic moments, in particular – was positioned over to stage left, so even with the use of highlight screens, the right hand side of the auditorium got a disproportionate view of the singers’ backs.  

Those who saw Kristine Opolais’ Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden back in 2014 will remember how completely the young singer inhabited the role of Puccini’s teenage siren (she was thirty-four at the time). If anything, her Tosca is even more impressive: vocally secure, dramatically confident and with just the right number of individual touches to show that she’s thought about the role. The pious woman of the second act was as convincingly put across as the jealous diva of the first (most singers whom I have seen tackle the role have only managed one of those two aspects) and her mixed feelings after despatching Scarpia were beautifully telegraphed. Having colllected golden opinions in London, at the New York Met and in other international opera centres, Opolais now bids fair to be the Puccuni soprano of the next decade.

Tosca is an opera where the supporting roles don’t get much of a look in, being almost entirely incidental to the drama. To its credit, WNO fielded a team of actor/singers who delivered beyond what was required of them, with Elgan Llŷr Thomas and Romanas Kudriasovas standing out, respectively, as a slimy Spoletta and a pedantic Sacristan. Andri Björn Róbertsson launched proceedings well in the small but vital role of Angellotti. Steffan Lloyd Owen doubled menacingly as the Sciarrone and the Jailer and a very promising debut came from festival competition winner Joseph Elwy Jones as the Shepherd Boy. Gareth Jones drew a powerful, velvety sound from the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera. Like any opera orchestra, they will be more than familiar with the piece, yet there was nothing remotely perfunctory about the performance, and the Pavillion was charged with the palpable excitement of a great event. 

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