Tosca – Bord Gais Energy Theatre, 14/3/18 – Review

Review first published on Nomoreworkhorse.com on 16/3/18.

As the one and only European capital without a dedicated opera house, there’s an element of novelty and treat that must be unique to Dublin audiences in going to the opera in a big, beautiful theatre. So attending Tosca – one of the pillars of the operatic repertoire as well as one of the most visceral operas ever written – in the shiny, contemporary frame of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre was something I was really looking forward to. Nor was the enchantment broken at the opening of the huge red velvet curtains.

The production, by St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Opera and International Leisure and Arts, is a gloriously traditional one and we are treated to a visual feast of lavish costumes and stunning sets. The opera’s locations of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the interior of Palazzo Farnese and the rooftop of Castel Sant’Angelo are spectacularly recreated on stage by the means of realistic marble columns, checkered floors, heavy curtains, shiny chandeliers and impressive lighting design; the whole effect amplified by the generous proportions of the stage.

The standard of singing wasn’t, however, quite in par with the visual element of the production. Tenor Fyodor Ataskevich seemed quite attuned to the role of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi; but his singing was uneven and the high pitches required in the main arias weren’t handled very strongly.

Baritone Alexander Kuznetsov, as the evil chief of police Scarpia, distinguished himself for the most correct Italian pronunciation among the cast. On the other hand he lacked the impetus of this very distinctive character, with his voice remaining rather atonic for most of the performance, exception made for some rare moments during the famous duet with Tosca in the second act.

Celine Byrne is gifted with one of the most beautiful voices among Irish sopranos; her tone has a sensuous and velvety depth that lingers in your memory. “Vissi d’arte” was the perfect showcase aria for her natural talent and was splendidly performed, being by far the highlight of the evening. However, her acting during most of the opera left something to be desired and her recitatives weren’t compelling enough to be fully believable. The second act was her best one.

With the aforementioned exception of Scarpia, incorrect Italian pronunciation was a widespread and recurrent issue among the singers. Even if you are not a native speaker, as an opera lover you are bound to learn some of the most famous arias by heart, and hearing any straying from the original can prove disturbing.

Under the direction of Mikhail Tatarnikov, The National Symphony Orchestra execution was – naturally – impeccable and Puccini’s score worked its usual charm, particularly in the third act. I personally found the tempi of both love duets (in the first and third act) unbearably phlegmatic. This was exacerbated by the uncertainty of the tenor in the Italian pronunciation, particularly in a passage of the duet in the third act, where the addition of a syllable in a verse (“Amaro sol[o] per te m’era il morire”) visibly jumbled the flow of the singing.

Here’s the thing: no visual embellishment can make us forget that the essence of opera is in the singing. We can use as a litmus test the following: would we be moved if we saw the same singers in a shabby room wearing ordinary clothes? If the answer is yes, then we’ll be sure we are witnessing great opera.

Here’s hoping that such a beautiful theatre will be more regularly filled with opera, and with productions that can successfully balance the singing and the staging.

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