OPERA is a relatively new thing to me – I tried one or two in the late 90s but have mainly been drawn to straight theatre and musical theatre since my childhood.
I say this to frame my reaction to this production, as it was the first time I have ever seen Tosca, and knew little of the plot, other than the tourist trail with the same name in Rome, which follows the locations of the three Acts of Puccini’s opera. This Tosca was a flagship item in this year’s Celebrate Voice Festival at Salisbury, along with performances by such great exponents of the voice as Dilly Keane and Ian Shaw, and it featured the Artistic Director, Lynsey Docherty in the title role. I have recently enjoyed Meryl Streep’s screen performance as Florence Foster-Jenkins, and wondered, very briefly, as I sat in the gallery of the magnificent Medieval Hall in Salisbury’s Cathedral Close, whether this may be similar, as the Artistic Director cast herself in anything she may desire.
I need not have been concerned. Lynsey has a strong, clear, soprano voice, and apart from my uneducated mind still getting used to the amount of vibrato that is needed to produce and maintain such a voice, she sang her heart out and her socks off. There is more singing in the title role of this opera than for either her lover Cavaradossi or the baddie Scarpia, and despite only planning to sing two of the performances, Ms Docherty had to do all five when the alternative Tosca was indisposed, something that would not normally be advised, but she showed few signs of weariness or exhaustion to this novice in all things operatic. Her lover, sung with a lyrical beauty and complete honesty by Stephen Aviss, was superb in his role, totally believable, and at times I could even forget the fact that he was singing, so passionate and meaningful was the wonderful sound he was making – almost connecting with us on a spiritual level rather than through words. I hardly needed to read the surtitles when he was singing, as I seemed to understand him with my schoolboy scattering of Italian. Scarpia was not as much of a baddie as I would hope he might be, but this was my first Tosca, so perhaps he is always slightly underplayed, but as a theatre director and actor I would liked to have seen a more sinister, creepy, vengeful side to him. His singing was good, but he was just not quite evil enough for me.
The supporting roles were all portrayed very well, including Matthew Tomko’s escaped prisoner Angelotti, Robert Gildon’s light and comic Sacristan, Richard Roberts and Nick Fowler’s henchmen, Andrew Armstrong, known to me for his beautiful lyric tenor which he often puts to good use at Milborne Port, as the Gaoler, and the beautiful voice of Noah Ferris as the Shepherd. The chorus of children and adults appeared a couple of times, singing cleverly from the back of the Hall for added ambience, and they brought a lovely warmth to the production.
The set was very basic, but did not need much more in the setting of a Festival, a temporary venue, and almost a concert performance, with clever use of projection and under-lighting which, although it meant that I could not always see the person singing very well, added to the ambience of the ancient building which itself is nearly contemporary with the three Roman locations of the opera.
The brightest light on the stage, however, was that shining on the score being played by surely the brightest star on it, Musical Director and pianist extraordinaire Phillip Thomas. What an astounding talent this man is – from single, held, bass notes, full of atmosphere and doom, to manic passages using nearly all of the keys which sounded as though he had grown a couple of extra arms, he was the focus of my attention for a lot of the show. This did not take anything away from the theatre unfolding on the stage – quite the opposite – Thomas’s mastery of the piano added an extra dimension that may have been lost had the piano been hidden away somewhere. I would pay good money to watch Mr Thomas play anything on the piano, and he should be justifiably proud of his cast last night. What a tremendous addition to such a special Festival, and I hope the Artistic Director is very proud of her Tosca.