Bristol Hippodrome

Tosca November 2013

You know its good when the person sitting next to you is crying and another confides that they will be attending three separate performances by the Welsh National Opera at the Bristol Hippodrome in one week

A group of us went to see Tosca on Tuesday night and apart from numb bums after a mammoth nearly three hours we all left on a real high.

Tosca - like Madame Butterfly - is an passionate opera great for novices and buffs and nowadays you don't even have to speak Italian as performances come complete with surtitles.*

It runs the gambit of murderous politics and tortuous deaths against a backdrop of the Napoleonic wars in Rome in June 1800.

The clever use of lighting to create shadows gives an ominous sense of foreboding in the opening act set in an Italian church.

The scenery is big and theatrically overbearing and the final act uses a huge stone statue waving the sword of Damocles which epitomises the peril faced by the players; the costumes are sumptuous and the characters pious and naive or powerful and corrupt depending on their role.

American soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams plays the tragic heroine Floria Tosca, a celebrated singer, and the part of her lover Mario Cavaradossi, a painter and republican, was sung by Geraint Dodd.

Both were superb.Tosca is a fast-paced operatic thriller and from the first shattering bars Giacomo Puccini's mastery puts you on the edge of your seat and keeps you there.

I heard a few misplaced male sniggers during the second act when Tosca gulped three glasses of wine for courage prior when threatened with rape but mostly the audience seemed well-heeled and well-behaved if mostly of a certain age.

It was good to see some young student musicians wander down the stalls during one of the two intervals to see up-close-and-personal the orchestra pit which was so large that six rows of seats had been removed.

I overheard them marvel about the bells although one said a percussionist had missed a beat but mostly 

they were in awe of the proceedings.

Nailsea grandmother Helen Penney said: "I have never been to an opera before and I thought Tosca was the perfect introduction.

"The story gripped from the beginning .

"The singing was wonderful and Tosca's aria reduced me to tears.

"It was a great evening."

And retired Weston-super-Mare teacher Felicity Brock who is a member of Bristol Choral Society said: "I 

thought the staging of the opera was excellent.

"The light through the church door was evocative of the contrast between outdoor sunshine and heat and the gloom of the interior of so many churches. "They used the same effect inside the palace belonging to the chief of police, Baron Scarpia, to give the impression of the torture chamber.

"The huge statue of the sword of justice on the battlements of the Castel Sant'Angelo was threatening and I was in no doubt that this was a place of evil.

"The performers gave good account of themselves and the two substitutes - Geraint Dodd for Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi and Laurence Cole 

for Daniel Griceas Angelottie - did well.

"Geraint Dodd was a little less confident in Act 1 but his aria in Act 3 was beautifully sung.

"I missed some of the chilling evil of Scarpia in Claudio 

Otlli's portrayal – he could have been more sinister.

"The real star of the show was Mary Elizabeth Williams

"She had a beautiful rich voice and she moved me to tears in her heart-rending aria."

The theatre was booked to capacity and an opera fan from Taunton confessed to me that as the Somerset county town can be a bit of a cultural desert he had taken advantage of the WNO tour by buying Hippodrome tickets for Anna Bolena on Wednesday, Mary Stuarda on Thursday and Roberto Devereux on Friday.

Carol Deacon


* Surtitles, also known as supertitles, are translated or transcribed lyrics/dialogue projected above a stage or displayed on a screen, commonly used in opera or other musical performances. WNO provide surtitles in English and Welsh!