In John Bell’s latest production of Tosca for Opera Australia we are transported into a troubling Nazi-occupied Rome, combining all the elements of this most tragic opera into a frighteningly real presentation. And above it all soars Puccini’s magnificent music- nothing compares to the works of this master of the operatic art.
Scrawled across the stage curtain are the words “morte”, or “death”- a precursor for the events to unfold. We are introduced to the lovers Cavardossi (Teodor Illincai) and Tosca (Ainhoa Arteta), the latter prone to jealously but ardent in her affections. Cavardossi is hiding the recently escaped Angelotti- who soon draws in the ruthless chief of police Scarpia (Lucio Gallo). Determined to possess Tosca, Scarpia “fans” her jealously in order to smoke out the hiding spot. After Cavardossi is captured and tortured Scarpia propositions (menacingly) that Tosca will be able to save her lover if she gives her body to him. Seemingly destroyed she agrees, but then stabs Scarpia to death as he makes his final advance. Returning to Cavardossi’s side she explains the execution will be fake and they will be able to run away. She watches on as the firing squad take position and execute Cavardossi. Too late she realizes that the fake execution was all too real and runs to the parapet to end her own life by the shots of the soldiers.
It is an incredibly affecting opera, and the stage brings such realness to the events that the impact is that much greater. The impressive first stage is inside a magnificent replica Roman basilica and at the concluding notes of the first act the blackout darkens the stage until only the flickering light of the candles remain.
Gallo creates in Scarpia a character that you can absolutely loathe. The firm baritone bearing over his despicable acts and frightening lines. You can’t help but recoil as he grasps at Tosca and tells her how he prefers to “conquer” women rather than romance them, that her tears and look of hatred were mere aphrodisiacs for his desires. “And all Rome trembled before him” indeed.
Illincai provides a contrast in his resolute and charming Cavardossi, although I do feel this role takes a back seat when compared to Tosca and Scarpia. In particular when the lovers duet, it is Tosca’s voice that rises above. Still, Illincai’s solo “E lucevan le stele” (“and the stars shone”) is one of the most emotional moments of the production- his line “and never have I loved life so much” particularly affixing.
But it is most certainly Arteta who takes the centre stage here- creating a Tosca that is strong and who, despite being prone to her weakness (jealously), bravely resolves to push through with what needs to be done. She is amongst few “opera women” who take matters firmly into their own hands without compromising their good-hearted nature. And what a voice!! Her “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art”) had the crowd absolutely transfixed. An incredible moment.
Tosca is a powerful opera, and is here placed in a powerful setting. Truly one of Opera Australia’s best.
WRITER’S SIDE NOTE-
We also decided to venture to the Joan Sutherland Lounge Bar this time round which turned out to be a wonderful precursor to the magnificent opera. Gazing out of the Northern Foyer across the harbor to the Bridge, with the storm forming and with giant cruise ships leaving, whilst sharing a few plates of tasty treats (including a most delicious brownie) helped create quite the atmosphere. And it was lovely to not have to worry about rushing to make the performance start as has sometimes been the case when eating elsewhere. Would definitely do that again!
Tosca will be making audiences tremble before it at the Sydney Opera House until the 31st of March. For more information and to book visit opera.org.au
The reviewer attended the performance on the 17th February.
Photo credit (c) Prudence Upton