Baritone Roland Wood on playing Tosca's notorious villian, Scarpia

Director Anthony Besch’s powerful production of Puccini’s operatic thriller Tosca received no fewer than its ninth revival at Scottish Opera last Autumn.

 The opera was famously dubbed a ‘shabby little shocker’ by critic Joseph Kerman, partly because of the appalling actions of sadistic chief of police Baron Scarpia, sung by baritone Roland Wood in last October’s staging.

 We caught up with Roland, who’s recently returned home from Toronto, Canada where he was due to be singing Amonasro in Aida with Canadian Opera Company, before the production was cancelled. Whilst he is still due to be singing Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus with Opera Theater of St Louis over the summer , for now he is taking on what he calls his ‘biggest villain role yet’, of home-schooling. In between his new found teacher duties, here he looks back on the pleasures of singing a villain.

People often ask me what it’s like to play Scarpia, possibly the biggest baddie in the operatic canon. I always give the same reply: for a baritone, it’s just another day at the office…

 I spend my life playing sociopaths and lunatics. Whether it’s murdering kings and children (as Macbeth), having people burnt at the stake (Il Conte di Luna), hiring assassins who kill my daughter (Rigoletto), or slaughtering my brother in front of my wife (Golaud), I’m happiest on stage when the blood is flowing and the tenor is being mercilessly tortured.

 For these reasons, Scottish Opera’s Tosca in 2019 was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career. The production is fabulous, the cast were a joy to work with, and the orchestra and chorus have never sounded better.

The visceral feeling of the sound cascading downstage towards the audience at the end of Act I in the Te Deum is one I’ll never forget. It was a particular thrill for me to know that my son, Fergus, was one of the choristers, and that we were briefly able be on stage together. I’ve no idea if we’ll ever get to be in the same show again, so it’s an experience I’ll always cherish.

However, a villain is only as good as his hero, and heroes don't come much better than my fellow singers Natalya Romaniw, Sinéad Campbell Wallace and Gwyn Hughes Jones. I’ve killed Gwyn on stage many times, but it still gives me a thrill having him shot in Act III, particularly when he holds ‘Vittoreeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaa’ for longer than is strictly necessary. 

The dramatic intensity and artistry that Natalya and Sinéad brought to their shared role of Tosca often left me genuinely fearing for my life and vital organs. A blunt palette knife has never been so terrifying...

Natalya’s mastery of the role grew with each performance, and nowhere was it more apparent than in her consistent ability to miss the target when throwing the framed portrait of Mussolini. To be able time and time again to miss the overweight, middle-aged baritone lying motionless on the bed three feet from her displayed a level of stagecraft rivalled only by Jonathan Sedgwick’s cigarette smoking in Act III!

The supporting roles in Tosca are often overlooked, but Paul Carey Jones’ superlative impression of Donald Maxwell and Lance Nomura’s moustache both deserve a special mention. Dingle Yandell was there as well. However, we were all forced to play second fiddle to the spectacle that was Aled Hall as Spoletta. Anyone who has shared the stage with Aled will understand what we were forced to contend with – everything from the fetishistic fondling of his revolver, to the extraneous grunts and snorts in the middle of other people’s phrases, to the elegant, understated delivery of his final line, ‘Ah Toscaaaaaahhh, pagherai ben cara la sua vitaahaaaaaa!’ His performance is one I will never forget, however hard I try...