An ingenious concept, lavish scenery and superlative singing make for a highly memorable night of grand opera as Tosca reclaims its place as a jewel of the Opera Australia repertoire.
Seamlessly updating the action to Nazi-occupied Rome of 1943, acclaimed Australian director John Bell gives Puccini’s classic opera the Shakespeare treatment, mining Illica and Giocosa’s libretto for every ounce of conflict and character. The arrogant malevolence of the dreaded Scarpia and the desperate way Cavaradossi and Tosca react to his demands make such perfect sense that newcomers may wonder if the opera is ever set at any other time. The impact of swastika banners being carried into church, and Scarpia prompting the congregation and clergy to “Heil,” brings act one to a chilling end.
Bell finds an authentic humanity in the well-known characters, heightening the drama by playing for truth and eschewing any trace of melodrama. Expert direction extends from Scarpia’s lascivious lusting for Tosca and insidious bullying of his colleagues, to chorus details such as the congregation members who can barely bring themselves to Heil and the officer who laments over the swastika banner Cavaradossi tears from the wall.
The naturalism is aided Michael Scott-Mitchell’s lavish, movie-quality sets, the highlight being the dazzling white marble and gold leaf of Sant’Andrea church. The realism continues in act two, in which Scarpia’s austere chambers open to a balcony over the square where Tosca is heard singing at the victory celebration. As act three opens, the proliferation of barbed wire above the balustrade of the Castel Sant’Angelo indicates that Tosca will not be making her usual exit from this scene. If the width of the sets does not quite fill the State Theatre stage, the height of the proscenium certainly complements the grandeur of the designs.
Within the deliberately drab, muted pallet of wartime costume designs, Teresa Negroponte has fashioned exceedingly smart military uniforms. Tosca’s electric blue dress brings of a jolt of colour in act one, and her victory celebration dress has a darkly decadent sparkle.
Maestro Andrea Molino draws a lush, richly coloured rendition of the score from Orchestra Victoria. Brass has an energetic oomph, especially for Scarpia’s first entrance, and percussive bells sweetly mark the significant times of the church day. Chorus preparation by Anthony Hunt is reliably excellent; this quality, in combination with the superb orchestral playing and superb lead singers, allowing the rich tapestry of the score to be appreciated in its full glory.
Replacing an indisposed Svetla Vassileva at relatively short notice, Austrian soprano Martina Serafin makes an astounding Australian debut as Floria Tosca. Her voluptuous soprano shimmering with emotion, Serafin conveys the full range of Tosca’s jealousy, passion, fear and compassion, easily winning the audience’s affection with her tender portrayal of a woman in love. Confidently feminine and attractive and yet distinctly vulnerable, Serafin’s rounded characterisation grounds the action and garners sympathy. Tremulous and heartfelt, Serafin’s rendition of “Vissi d’arte” is a moving highpoint of the night.
Mexican tenor Diego Torre exhibits the tireless, soaring power of his voice as Cavaradossi, producing impressive high, ringing notes with deceptive ease. Torre’s “E lucevan le stelle” brought enthusiastic applause before the music had fully played out on opening night. Torre’s solid build works to make Cavaradossi appear convincingly less susceptible to the brutal treatment from Scarpia’s team. Torre and Serafin warm up a little slowly with their chemistry, but really let fly as tragedy approaches in act three.
Having made a striking impact as Iago in Otello in Sydney in July this year, Italian baritone Claudio Sgura again displays his magnetic presence, charismatic acting skills and thrilling voice in his Melbourne debut. No oily villain, Scarpia is portrayed a lustful man in the prime of life and power who fully believes that pleasure and domination are his natural right. Sgura’s towering height adds to his menace, and his lean, virile stature significantly heightens his sexual menace.
From the terrific international lead cast to the sumptuous staging, ticket buyers will see every cent of their purchase on stage. Tosca is traditional opera at its very best, and earned an exceedingly rare standing ovation from much of the audience on opening night.
Tosca plays selected dates at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 13 December 2014. Martina Serafin appears until 29 November 2014.
Man in Chair reviewed the premiere season of Tosca in Sydney in July 2013.
Photos: Jeff Busby