Music, Stage

Tosca review (Sydney Opera House)

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When director John Bell’s production of Puccini’s Tosca premiered in Sydney in 2013, it was a clear dramatic masterpiece; taut, full of dramatic tension and fully-realised characters. The performances, by Alexia Voulgaridou, Yonghoon Lee and John Wegner, set the bar staggeringly high — so high, in fact, that I remember worrying that I’d been spoiled and that all future outings of Bell’s production would pale in comparison.
Not likely. Not with the vocal and dramatic dexterity South African soprano Amanda Echalaz brings to the title role. The breadth and creamy, dark warmth of her tone is apparent from the first phrases she sings off stage. When she bursts forth, she reveals a genuinely stunning spinto soprano with even power throughout her entire range. So assured is her performance — comfortably tackling every vocal challenge — you could almost imagine the role was written especially with Echalaz in mind. But it’s her dramatic performance that impresses most.
Her skills are perhaps best exemplified in her performance of the iconic aria Vissi d’arte. Puccini famously came to regret putting the aria smack-bang in the middle of the second act, concerned that the soprano showpiece held up the seething tension at play. Not in Echalaz’s hands; it becomes a monologue with a complete narrative arc. She’s lit a fire under this revival, and the standard of everything else on stage seems to have lifted to match her.
Bell’s production ingeniously moves the action from Rome in 1800 forward to Nazi-controlled Rome in the early 1940s — it’s a very comfortable update, which just serves to exemplify how universal and timeless Tosca’s story really is. The abuse of power (including sexual power) and its uncomfortable relationship with religion is intensely felt in the final moments of the first act in this production, when Nazis march through a church, commanding all around them. Then again as Scarpia (Claudio Sgura) attempts to coerce Tosca into performing sexual acts to save her lover. As Bell points out in his directors notes, these are things still happening all around the world today, and he, along with assistant director Roger Press, imbues these scenes with the stark reality, terror and ugliness of the situation.
But there’s nothing ugly about this production visually — the set design, by Michael Scott-Mitchell, is a triumph in and of itself, particularly the brilliantly realised first act set. As the curtain rises, you could almost imagine you’re staring into a Roman cathedral, complete with solid marble floors and sculptures (I’m not sure what materials have been used, but all at the Opera Australia workshop deserve praise for their illusions). Teresa Negroponte’s 1940s costumes are just as beautiful — the silver gown Tosca wears in the second act is as much of a showstopper as the aria she performs.
Riccardo Massi is in fine vocal form as Cavaradossi, rising to the heights of Puccini’s score with a light, rounded touch. His performance of the third act aria E’lucevan le stelle is sublime. Massi also conjures up plenty of chemistry with Echalaz, but they’re not the perfect vocal match; his approach is lighter than Echalaz’s intense darkness.
Stealing much of his limelight is Claudio Sgura’s formidable Scarpia. Few singers manage to match the authority as that signified by the leitmotif which announces Scarpia’s arrival, but Sgura brings a steady consistency and the fearsome, pitch-black tone required.
Conductor Andrea Battistoni draws colourful and dramatic performances from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, even if there are moments where he feels close to pushing the tempi beyond the singers’ point of comfort. And the Opera Australia Chorus delivers the requisite rich and insidious power in Puccini’s spectacular first act finale.
While it’s a little disappointing for Opera Australia to kick off its new summer season with three revivals (which will be four when Madama Butterfly opens), the company deserves credit for treating these productions with love — for example Tosca uses Nigel Poulton as the fight choreographer to ensure Bell’s tension isn’t broken by shoddy stage fights. In the past, some OA revivals have seemed under-rehearsed and the rehearsal directors who come in to reconstruct the productions haven’t exactly filled them with life and energy — you often get the impression that it’s just a matter of telling the singers where to stand and how to move their arms. It’s to OA’s credit (and to the credit of their revival and rehearsal directors) that all three of their current revivals are shining as brightly as they ever did dramatically.
But if you must choose just one, see this Tosca. It’s often said that lighter works are perfect for first-time opera-goers — try a Mozart or Carmen. Forget that — if you’ve never dipped your toe into the operatic pond before, see something as overwhelming, heavy and forceful as this perfectly realised production. It’s opera at its best.
[box]Tosca is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 17. Featured image by Branco Gaica.[/box]

3 responses to “Tosca review (Sydney Opera House)

  1. Agree with review. Went last night and its 4.5 or better. the three leads are all excellent, as is the staging and orchestra. As good as anything I saw whilst in London for 7 years.

  2. Wikipedia says John Bell was not the first to give this a German 1943 make-over. For this I award demerits for mimicry when I want creativity .

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