Review: ‘Tosca’

Following on from Thursday’s Die Fledermaus, Ellen Kent’s production of Puccini’s Tosca illustrated the sheer talent of her cast and orchestra in this tragic tale of love, murder and deception. The combined forces of the Orchestra of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Moldova and the National Philharmonic of Moldova were once again energetically and sensitively conducted by Vasyl Vasylenko.

Kent’s staging, using the same set as Die Fledermaus, was a lesson in flexibility and imagination of virtuosic proportions. Indeed, through staging and lighting, the scene shifted seamlessly from a church, to Scarpia’s (Vladimir Dragos) study, to a prison, and finally to castle ramparts. Inspired by the Ancient Greek and Roman amphitheatres, according to Kent, the set provided an accurate counterpoint to the grandeur of the music and the extreme stakes of the plot.   

Tosca presents significant challenges, even for a cast of international renown and with a director of Kent’s considerable experience. The music is intense, emotions not only concentrated into a single phrase, but also rapidly changing from melancholy to rage to love, challenging the emotional and musical sensitivities of its performers to the extreme. It is a testament to the talent of the cast that the entirety of the opera was both sung and acted with incredible feeling and realism. Tosca is one beautiful, emotionally complex aria after another, containing almost impressionistic effects, and a Wagner-esque use of leitmotifs to announce particular characters and to foreshadow various plot elements. In addition to the perhaps more obvious use of Scarpia’s three chord motif, the use of chimes both to portray church bells and to create an ominous sense of foreboding, for example, especially combined with soft, continuous drumming at the close of Act II, illustrates the complexity of Puccini’s use of music. Puccini does not merely use music in support of particular arias or to herald the arrival of specific characters, but also in a way that presages the way music would later be used to create sound effects in film and theatre.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 08.43.00
Tosca by Ellen Kent Opera

Valdimir Dragos’s Scarpia was portrayed with gravitas and immense sinister intent, the end of Act I highlighting his incredibly powerful baritone. Dragos followed this by making the entirety of Act II a masterclass in the conveying of Scarpia’s manipulative, lecherous character towards Tosca (Alyona Kistenyova). Indeed, ‘Vissi d’arte’ and ‘E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma’ in Act II were both musical and acting highlights of Kistenyova’s portrayal, the former brimming with poignant tenderness and melancholy, and the latter proving that Tosca was capable of darkness in the name of love in a way that was genuinely terrifying. Dragos and Kistenyova both performed with equally immense presence, impressive in the command of their characters and the music. Tosca and Cavaradossi’s relationship was played with great tenderness and nuance by Kistenyova and Ruslan Zinevych, perhaps made more believable by the fact that the two are married in real life, and also by the fact that both are very good actors, something that should be far more encouraged in opera. Thus, the playfulness, love, and even eroticism expressed in Act I’s ‘Qual’occhio’ gives way to desperation, melancholy, and loving memory by Act III’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’, played with masterful musical and emotional control by Zinevych.

Kent deals well with the rather abrupt ending to Puccini’s opera, with the choices to have Cavaradossi facing the firing squad with his back to the audience, and Tosca leaping off the castle walls to her death by setting the rampart at the very back of the stage, leaving her to make her dramatic exit by sweeping her cloak and disappearing into the wings, proving to be inspired decisions. Kent thereby intelligently found a way to stage what can otherwise be a fiddly and awkward scene to perform.

Kent’s production of Puccini’s Tosca, directed with her customary beautiful aesthetic, showed her work and her cast, orchestra, and conductor at their best.

Alexia Kirk

Ellen Kent Opera continues to tour the country; for future dates, please visit their website.

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