Love, sex, jealousy, betrayal, murder, greed, misogyny – all standard fare in opera, and we accept it with equanimity.
But menacing evil is something else, and when faced with it, as in this Australian Opera version of Puccini’s Tosca it becomes disconcerting. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling.
In this wonderful production of one of the world’s most famous operas, the distinguished director, John Bell, has set Tosca in Nazi-occupied Rome in 1943. It was undoubtedly the emotion that Bell desired, but it was particularly unsettling as this opening performance took place on the eve of ANZAC Day, the reflexion on authoritarianism and extremist politics ever present.
Without over-simplifying it, Tosca is a 3-act melodrama, with all of the aforementioned elements in the soup. Tosca herself could be described as a warrior-heroine, bent on saving the life of her lover, Cavaradossi, who is facing execution. Tosca begs the Roman chief of police, Scarpia, to spare him. The price is sex, to which she agrees. Scarpia then orders his deputy Spoletta to perform a mock execution of Cavaradossi, after which he and Tosca will be able to escape. As he moves to claim his reward, Tosca kills him.
Awaiting the execution of Cavaradossi Tosca is able to tell him that the execution will be faked. But she realises too late that she and Cavaradossi have been deceived by Scarpia. Tosca takes her own life.
The unsettling element of this production is that in July 1943, the Nazis did, indeed, occupy Rome, and many prominent fascists collaborated with them. Ironically they included the Chief of Police, Pietro Caruso, and Pietro Koch, head of the Special Police Unit.
In a naïve attempt to broker peace Pope Pius XII asked the Germans, backed by the fascist police, to keep law and order in Rome. The Vatican tried to save baptised Jews from deportation, but failed, as Koch discovered their hiding places in various Vatican properties.
As Bell points out in his Directors’ notes, the Vatican, “to its shame ran a ‘ratline’ to help Nazi war criminals escape to Argentina.” Occupied Rome was at the mercy of the German police, the German Army, the SS and the Gestapo. Thousands suffered.
So to the performance itself, led by American Soprano Latonia Moore as Tosca, Diego Torre as Cavaradossa and Marco Vratogna as Scarpia, with a strong supporting cast. All gave excellent performances, with plaudits to the chorus at the conclusion of Act 1 for an especially moving Te Deum.
Diego Torre, in the role of the painter Caravadossi, has to effectively bring the opera to life. His task is complicated by the fact that within ten minutes or so of the opening he must perform one of the most famous arias in opera, the Recondita Armonia. Squib this and it’s uphill all the way. Torre rose to the challenge and the cheers and applause that followed settled the butterflies.
Latonia Moore was radiant as Tosca. Her lush voice filled the auditorium and entranced the audience. Her acting abilities gave her the strength to face down Marco Vratogna’s Scarpia. The opera traditionally ends when Tosca leaps over a balcony to her death. Bell, however, has her peppered with a volley of shots leaving her prostate against barbed wire. It underscored the theme of the production, but it didn’t appear particularly convincing.
Vratogna took the night. His malevolence was both stunning and frightening. A truly wonderful performance.
In the pit Orchestra Victoria, under the baton of Andrea Battistoni gave another superb performance. Puccini’s music is both beautiful and expressive, no more so than in Tosca. Battistoni’s direction gave added emphasis to the story as it developed.
A melodrama yes, but as Scarpia himself says in the Second Act, such is the profound misery of profound love.
Reviewer Cyril Jones attended Opera Australia’s production of Tosca at the State Theatre, Melbourne on April 24, 2018