Review by Susie Conte
In West Australian Opera’s 50th anniversary year, Tosca is a triumph to open their mainstage season. A tale of passion, sacrifice and betrayal, it is used to tell the story of real people experiencing real life, to express ‘great griefs in small souls.’ Stuart Maunder, director of this production and General Director of New Zealand Opera, returns to Perth where he has directed for the West Australian Opera before, including Tosca. His familiarity and respect for the opera shines through.
Tosca (Antoinette Halloran) is a renowned prima donna, her hero Cavaradossi (Paul O’Neill) is a famous painter and the villain, Scarpia (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) is the head of the Secret Police. There is a murder, a couple of suicides and a death by firing squad. Updated from the setting of the Napoleonic Wars, this production sets the action in Cold War Italy, where the mafia is running the country. Halloran’s Tosca is capricious and volatile, but warm and loving, and at turns very funny. The love affair with her painter is moving and passionate. Cavaradossi has volunteered to paint a fresco in the church as a cover for his revolutionary activities and also as a ‘legitimate’ meeting place with Tosca where she comes to pray and lay flowers before the statue of the Virgin Mary. O’Neill has a smooth tenor voice and plays the role with great integrity. Their interaction is wholly believable and we root for them to be together even though we know it will not end well. Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the villainous and menacing Scarpia who lusts after Tosca and will take her by force if necessary, makes for uncomfortable viewing. He is grim faced and terrifying. Rhodes plays him with gusto, using his large physical presence on stage to unsettle Tosca and his cronies. The three main leads are tactile with each other and create a physical architecture to their scenes that holds us, the love is passionate and the threat of violence is terrifying.
Puccini wrote the opera after seeing a play on the subject, La Tosca by Victorien Sardou, and we have a gut-wrenching and sublime realistic opera of love and loss. Puccini wanted authentic elements in his opera, and wrote a priest requesting prayers for the entrance of the Cardinal at the end of Act One, as well as traveling to Castel Sant’Angelo to hear the morning church bells from the terrace, in order to reproduce their pitches orchestrally at the beginning of Act Three. The programme notes state that it is this attention to detail that would lead to Puccini’s operatic successes, from Madama Butterfly to Turandot.
The opera is allowed to breathe, something we often don’t see anymore; in modern musicals for instance, every change of mood happens at breakneck speed. WAO Artistic Director Brad Cohen, the conductor for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra which accompanies this opera, discusses the pace in his notes in the programme. “What distinguishes Puccini as a dramatist…is his unfailing instinct for the right pace.” We are drawn in from the first aria, and then taken on a ride of epic proportions to its sad conclusion.
The set design by Jan Ubels is spectacular – Act One opens with a scene in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome, all black wood panelled walls and candlelight, and off to the side the painter Cavaradossi’s painting scaffolding. The lighting design is so well crafted by Jason Morphett – all shafts of light through the church and shadows.
The West Australian Opera Chorus and the Tosca Children’s Chorus adds another layer to the show, with the kids’ voices intermingling with the stars at the end of Act One in a moving Te Deum crescendo.
In Act Two, the set is transformed into Scarpia’s office, again all epic floor to ceiling black wood panelling. One wall opens to the room where Cavaradossi is tortured, but all we see when the door opens is light spilling through, so we are made to imagine the horrors within. Again, the lighting is used to great effect. Tosca’s famous aria “Vissi d’Arte” has Halloran standing in a grotesque enormous shadow cast by Scarpia’s shadow on the other side of the room. It was an amazing moment. He has succeeded in breaking her, or so he believes, by promising to release her lover if she submits to his passion. Scarpia’s murder in the next instant is well deserved and bloody. We want to cheer his death.
Act Three opens on a prison courtyard of Castel Sant’Angelo where Cavaradossi is awaiting his execution. Tosca arrives to tell him she has managed to secure safe passage for them, and the execution is a sham that he must go through for them to be free, as promised by Scarpia. In a twist, she watches his execution and when she realises he has been killed, she throws herself off the tower.
The pure joy on the cast faces during the curtain call as they realised they had a hit was a pleasure to behold.
Tosca runs at His Majesty’s Theatre until April 8. For tickets and more information, visit the WA Opera website here.