Opera Australia has returned to Melbourne for a spring season that features three Italian composers. Puccini’s Tosca is followed by Donizetti’s Don Pasquale while Verdi is represented by Falstaff, in Simon Phillips’ production. Director John Bell’s new production of Tosca, set in Mussolini’s Italy, is a triumph in its own right and also dispels memories of a previous production, reviewer Heather Leviston finds …
With Opera Australia’s brilliant new production of Tosca, the company’s previous mounting of this opera is now only a faint stain on its reputation. Redemption has come in the form of John Bell. Engaging a celebrated actor and theatre director is no guarantee of a successful outcome, especially when the historical setting is updated in the dubious interests of relevance. But such is Bell’s creative imagination, musical sensitivity and respect for the composer that his Tosca is destined to remain an important component of OA’s repertoire.
By transplanting the context from Napoleonic Rome of 1800 to Fascist Rome under German occupation in 1944, Bell’s hope that audiences would experience afresh the impact and enduring human truths of the opera has been realised. The parallels between the two historical eras are chillingly close and point to human interactions and power play that are all too apparent even today.
To emphasise the verismo effect, Michael Scott-Mitchell has created stunning sets based on details of the original sites. There are even photographic reproductions of the paintings from the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle for Act 1, and the sets for the following two acts were similarly designed with an eye to authenticity and dramatic impact.
Teresa Negroponte’s costumes were stylish and thoughtfully conceived. Even the green underskirt that peeped from beneath Tosca’s electric- (as opposed to Madonna-) blue Act 1 dress reflected aspects of her character. The mixture of uniforms, Fascist paraphernalia, clerical finery and the modest Sunday-best of the parishioners for the end of Act 1 was carefully devised and made for a telling spectacle.
One dilemma facing anybody reviewing this production, or even telling friends about it, is how much to reveal without spoiling the surprises. Those attending the information night were told that Tosca does not jump from the parapet of Castel Sant’Angelo, but further information was withheld. This was not the only surprise in Act 3 that is better experienced in the flesh than read about. Tosca’s death and the way the Shepherd Boy (poignantly sung by Miro Lauritz*) made his appearance are among the several coups de theatre for the evening. Act 2 no longer ends in the customary placing of candles around Scarpia’s body; a shocking alternative has been found that is completely in keeping with the general thrust of the production.(You will have to go and find out for yourself exactly how the action unfolds. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed).
Even the most superlative direction cannot succeed if the performers are not up to it. For this production there has been a succession of Toscas, who, for various reasons, have been unable to perform in Melbourne. Austrian Martina Serafin might have been a last minute replacement, but she was nothing short of superb and is a compelling reason for people to rush off and buy a ticket. Her voluptuous, creamy voice with its satisfyingly full middle range is perfectly suited to this role. Of the many different performances of Tosca I have seen over the years I cannot remember hearing such enthusiastic applause after the Act 1 duet. Serafin’s ability to colour her voice and present Tosca as a woman of emotional range: playfully warm and seductive one moment, jealous and passionate the next, her portrayal was delightfully nuanced. Her “Vissi d’arte” was a slow, finely controlled lament.
Looking a little like his famous compatriot, the great Mexican painter Diego Rivera, Diego Torre was a gallant Cavaradossi. With a firm, strong voice, he gave an expansive account of his big arias, making the most of extended top notes. Rock solid, they were designed to thrill. Together, he and Serafin provided a portrait of what is positive and joyous in life, which stood in stark contrast to the brutality of Scarpia’s dark world.
The weighty, spine-tingling Scarpia chords that open Tosca have prompted John Bell to wonder whether Puccini’s opera should perhaps be called Scarpia. This musical representation of one of opera’s nastiest villains certainly casts an ominous shadow over what is to follow. Repulsive as the character is, Scarpia is a plum role for baritones. Already an internationally seasoned Scarpia, Claudio Sgura** adds this role to Verdi’s similarly jealousy-mongering Iago for Opera Australia. Dressed in uniform and with slicked-back raven hair and a pallor that had something of the vampire about it, he was an intimidating sight. The nonchalant way he wielded power as Chief of Police, and the way he revelled in the fear he was able to generate in others, he personified sadism. In Act 1 he was presented as a hypocrite and ruthless manipulator; in Act 2 his menacing quality was intensified by the presence of his henchmen, while the sole uniformed woman sat rigid with fear and apprehension. Sgura’s rich, essentially beautiful baritone was shaded to match his convincing portrayal of a monster; after witnessing his perverted appetites we empathised with Tosca as she willed him to die.
Other roles were handled creditably, with Steven Gallop opening proceedings by establishing a strong vocal presence as the escaped political prisoner, Angelotti. Luke Gabbedy as the Sacristan and Graeme Macfarlane as a particularly slimy, cringing Spoletta added to the interest and dramatic force of the production.
Andrea Molino elicited some lovely playing from Orchestra Victoria and allowed the singers latitude while maintaining the sweep and energy of Puccini’s score.
The standing ovation that greeted the final curtain was well deserved. Opera Australia has invested considerable time, money and creative energy in a production that audiences are bound to enjoy for many years to come. Perhaps we will also be given the opportunity to see John Bell’s vision of Butterfly and Mimi, completing the set of Martina Serafin Puccini’s operas about a trio of heroines who make the journey from the ecstasies of unmarried bliss to assorted tragic endings.
Heather Leviston attended the premiere of Opera Australia’s Tosca at the Arts Centre Melbourne on November 12.
The picture shows Martina Serafin as Tosca and Diego Torre as Cavaradossi. Photo credit Jeff Busby.
* Young Miro Lauritz tells how it was to be a member of the cast …
I was fortunate enough to be accepted as the Shepherd Boy in the new John Bell production of Tosca. I was thrilled when I was given the part. When the rehearsals started, we immediately worked on the music before finally getting started on the scenes and a fantastic fight scene that I had been chosen to perform.
When we moved into the theatre we first tried on our costumes and make-up. After rehearsals we moved onto the amazing set, which is almost an exact replica of the chapel in Rome it is based on.
I performed my solo in front of the entire cast, which was quite nerve-racking, and before we knew it, it was the general rehearsal for our families to see. I was quite nervous and I hadn’t even rehearsed the curtain call before I was up there performing my solo in front of people. Little did I know that two nights later my nerves would be even greater on opening night!
Once the curtain went up I could see the thousands of faces marvelling at the set or looking right at me. It finished very quickly before I was called to the wings again for the curtain call. It felt great bowing with the cast and Maestro Andrea Molino, who couldn’t help but keep bowing, before the curtain finally went down and everyone was relieved.
** Read Deborah Humble’s interview with Claudio Sgura, recorded in Italy for Classic Melbourne.