When it comes to the opera Tosca, there is only one way to play it, and that's to give it your all. Composed by Giacomo Puccini, with the opera's premiere taking place in Rome in 1900, the production remains one of the most popular in the genre because of its thrilling mix of romance and political intrigue.
With such a heady stew, Welsh baritone Sir Bryn Terfel, who will star in Tosca tomorrow night when it is performed at the Emirates Palace Auditorium as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, says the production remains a popular masterpiece, despite the initial misgivings of critics who found it too pulpy.
"When it premiered, I believe there was even an Italian critic who described it as 'a shabby little shocker'. I believe he would have eaten his words," he says. "Nearly every opera house now has it. Tosca is the kind of spectacular opera that people enjoy and it would be one that you could instigate as the first opera you should go and see. Like other productions such as The Barber of Seville, Carmen and The Magic Flute, Tosca is part of the staple diet of any opera house, and they're the ones that sell."
This means Tosca becomes a regular part of any seasoned performer's repertoire. Terfel
has been praised for bringing a hefty physicality and depth to the role of Baron Scarpia
, who attempts to scheme his way into the heart of the title character, who in this production is played by renowned Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais.
Scarpia is a shrewd and corrupt politician, and Terfel says that the character resonates with today's audiences.
"We are talking about that seemingly untouchable power that some people have," he says. "I am sure we could name a couple of people now that are designated as power hungry. It is an intense time. It's clear from the beginning that nothing will move Scarpia from his trajectory towards the diva."
And this means an equally demanding performance is required from Opolais. Fortunately, she is more than up for the challenge. "There are certain roles that just fit you. For me, Tosca is the one," she says. "I feel that this has always been the role for me, because there are many similarities in our personalities."
Opolais was hailed by The Telegraph in 2015 as "the leading Puccini soprano of today" and is now ready to bring her fiery take on Tosca to the world. After Abu Dhabi, she will perform the role in London's Royal Opera House for six shows beginning on May 27, before another run of dates thoughout November in Germany. She says that the opera's appeal lies in how it deals with grand emotions. Her character, Floria Tosca, is a singer whose love for painter Mario Cavaradossi is tested by the demands of Scarpia, and is a canvas to explore different shades of anger, jealousy and obsession.
"It is difficult to really describe it to you as I feel very close to the character," Opolais says. "Tosca is all about these big dramatic moments and that's what Puccini does, his work is all about love and passion. When I am playing Tosca I totally feel her emotions on stage and I agree with all of her actions. I would do the same thing she would do in my life."
That said, Opolais says that while Tosca ultimately reveals herself to be a canny character, the singer disagrees with the notion that the character is smarter than she looks. "I am not saying that she is stupid, but everything that happens to her affects her. It eventually drives her to kill, and she is not a killer," she says.
Opolais says the key to being a great Tosca is to "sing with attitude". "And that's because you never know when it will be your last time," she says. "This is the role that I give myself no limit to and I will go to the end for it."
With such an intense approach, Opolais says she is glad that she will have some time unwind while she is in the capital. "I will go to the desert maybe, that would be great."
The Abu Dhabi Festival date marks the biggest staging of Tosca in the UAE. Yet, due to the lavish nature of the set, this will not be the full production that you would see in major concert houses elsewhere. Instead it will be a "semi-staged concert performance", which means it will feature a full cast of vocal soloists – Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo takes on the role of Cavaradossi in Abu Dhabi – as well as an orchestra and a choir. Large screens will be visible at the back of the stage showing images designed to evoke a feeling of being in Rome in the early 1800s.
Terfel says the images are there to create an atmosphere inside the auditorium. "It will be very subtle. You'll see landscapes, and you'll see buildings, and you'll see birds here and there," he says. "It just tells a different colour behind what's happening on the stage. I find that opera is all about colour."
There is a fair amount of grit as well. With his touring calendar filled up until 2021 already, Terfel is a regular performer and says the life of an opera singer is as much about flair as it is being studious.
Like most of his major roles, Terfel took a year to study the role of Scarpia before performing it in London a decade ago. "I find that if you give it a year in advance to study it, then it will stay with you for life," he says.
"It is like a computer and you can refer to it at any time. But there have been some roles I learnt quickly, such as the one I did for the [Welsh music festival] National Eisteddfod last August. I know I couldn't sing it for you now."
Tosca will be performed at Emirates Palace Auditorium on March 15 at 8pm. Tickets begin from Dh175 at www.abudhabifestival.ae