New Zealand Opera’s Tosca a triumph at all levels

Tosca by Puccini (production by New Zealand Opera)

Conducted by Tobias Ringborg; directed by Stuart Maunder

Solo voices: Orla Boylan, Simon O’Neill, Phillip Rhodes, James Clayton, Barry Mora, James Benjamin Rodgers, Wade Kernot, Matt Landreth

Assistant director: Tamsyn Matchett; set designer: Jan Ubels; Costume designer: Elizabeth Whiting, lighting designer: Jason Morphett

St James Theatre, Courtenay Place

Saturday 10 October, 7:30 pm

The Wellington run of Tosca no doubt benefitted after uniformly positive reviews and word-of-mouth reports from Auckland.

The reports from Auckland were not mistaken; here was one of the most impressive and successful productions from this company yet.

In Wellington, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was in the pit, and it was, of course, a superb collaboration that obliged the audience to notice Puccini’s masterly dramatic orchestration and the ways in which, under the experienced Tobias Ringborg, it supported and enlivened the story and the characterisations.

The chorus too, recruited separately for each city, was conspicuously excellent in the important episodes where it shone – nowhere better than in the Te Deum at the end of Act I; there, together with the fine boys’ choir.

And I was delighted that so many New Zealand singers were on stage: all but Orla Boylan in the title role.

Updating of opera and theatre has become almost de rigueur for today’s stage directors, and it can serve an opera well, when the story is generic in character. Here, it is shifted from 1800 to the 1950s and the programme note offers various parallels with the original time when Italy was partly and temporarily under Napoleon’s control.

As stage director, Stuart Maunder, demonstrated his skill and experience in guiding his characters in realistic behavior, in sensible and coherent action, whether a formal church ritual at the end of Act I, or the uneasy disposition of Scarpia’s henchmen in Act II. Costumes conformed to the chosen era and the stage design and lighting contributed imaginatively to the changing moods and emotional states described by the music and words.

After the unmistakable, ominous chords that launch the opera, Angelotti bursts through the doors of a dark, wood-panelled church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, having escaped from prison wearing suit and tie. And James Clayton carried his agitated yet commanding role splendidly.

Expectations were high for the appearance of Simon O’Neill as Cavaradossi, a role that he has not been very conspicuous in, though he has sung it in Hamburg and Berlin. Though his strength lies more in the heroic, military roles, called the Heldentenor in Wagner and German works, he employs vocal power and elegance to portray a convincing artist, political activist and lover for whom love is not, actually, the strongest force; who never allows any of the pious sneers of the Sacristan any leg-room, and whose resolute resistance to tyranny is always foremost. ‘Recondita armonia’ came across, as it should, very fine, a somewhat portentous, pretentious efflorescence, in contrast to the Sacristan’s simplistic piety, and also to Tosca’s more elemental erotic impulses.

How good it was to have a Sacristan of the experience and histrionic subtlety as Barry Mora in the role! There was droll wit in some of his ritual gestures relating to Satan and the pretty non-existent religious paraphernalia in the church.

The Scarpia of Phillip Rhodes was perhaps the unknown quantity. I had seen Phillip in several slightly smaller roles for New Zealand Opera as well as in Hawkes Bay as a journeyman singer in the late 1990s. This time it was the real thing. Though not tall, and dressed in what I suppose was a 1950s Mafioso style of a ‘spiv’ rather than a gold-braided police chief, the confidence of his movements, the colour and quality of his voice created a character of authority. His arrival in the church at the end of Act I and assumption of command, the ugly ranging of his henchmen around his chamber, and his approach to wine and women – his credo – in Act II, ‘Ha piu forte sapore’, came across with chilling force. Though the opera has him at ease with aristocratic manners and interests, he’s more the low-life crook who’s got to the top through violent means than a corrupt aristocrat.

Then there’s Tosca. Orla Boylan is tall, and had all the presence of a diva as well as a voice of strength and character; but there was little electricity in her relationship with Cavaradossi; or much irresistible sex-appeal in her demeanour, other than her position in the arts world, that might have driven Scarpia in his determination to rape her. But her singing did it all, from the ‘Non la sospiri la nostra casetta’ as she tried to seduce a slightly distracted Cavaradossi in Act I, and the show-stopper, ‘Vissi d’arte’; these were totally convincing and her style, again like O’Neill, not primarily of a sensual, lustful nature. So the streak of steel in her nature conformed with her stabbing Scarpia several times, just to be sure. Deep down, perhaps her performance was saying that she lived for art and love, but more for art?

The other characters were well taken. James Benjamin Rodgers as Spoletta, Wade Kernot as Sciarrone and the small roles of the Gaoler (Matt Landreth) and the shepherd boy (Archie Taylor) were not only excellently cast but also, for the first time in several years, almost all were New Zealanders (James Clayton now lives in Wellington).

Unusually, the curtain remained down throughout the first ten minutes of Act III, with the shepherd boy’s charming singing which sets a bucolic scene, designed to create a stark visual contrast with the ugly scene of Cavaradossi’s execution, Castel Sant’Angelo. The melody of his movingly sung, pathetic aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’ permeates the whole act.

As for the execution itself, though the firing squad had taken aim, Spoletta suddenly grabbed Cavaradossi, forced him to his knees and shot him with a handgun at point-blank range. A difficulty remained for Tosca: she sees this, and there can be no mistaking that Scarpia’s ambiguous remark to Spoletta, ‘as in the case of Palmieri’ had meant a pretend firing-squad execution was itself a pretence and her lover is dead.

Yet she still approaches Cavaradossi urging him to get up.

Tosca has positioned herself on a platform four metres or so above the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo and we witnessed a much more than usually breath-taking leap to her death.

The period change in this production deserves a little further consideration.

Where the time and place of an opera are very clearly prescribed by the background story, here a play, as well as by the librettist and composer, in Napoleonic Rome in 1800, the matter is a little more complicated. One needs to think hard whether any real advantage will be gained by moving it forward 150 years. It’s in the 1950s and the programme note draws comparisons with post-war Italy, the presence of the Catholic church, ‘a regime dominated by foreign interests’, and the mafia in the background, and suggests, rather tendentiously I think, ‘a time of secret police, of terror, suspicion and corruption supporting a fragile, conservative regime’. Maybe that’s sufficient.

Earlier productions of Tosca
In the preview articles for New Zealand Opera’s 2003 production of Tosca, New Zealand Opera News, which I was editing, devoted a good deal of space to the much more detailed back-story of Tosca that was narrated in the play by Victorien Sardou, which had been a world-wide success from its Paris premiere in 1887. It was one of most famous roles of the great French actress, Sarah Bernhardt.

The magazine also printed a list of all the New Zealand productions of Tosca that had been recorded.

The New Zealand premiere was in January 1917 in Auckland, the first port of call of the Gonsalez Italian Grand Opera company.
1919/20 Willamson Grand Opera Co
1932 Williamson Imperial Grand Opera
1949 J C Williamson Italian Grand Opera
1961 New Zealand Opera Company (nation-wide tour)
1973 National Opera Company/Auckland Opera Trust (in Auckland only)
1980 Dunedin Opera Company
1984 Wellington City Opera
1985 Mercury Opera, Auckland
1990 Canterbury Opera
1992 Wellington City Opera
1993 Dunedin Opera Company
1996 Canterbury Opera
Opera Hawkes Bay
Opera New Zealand (formerly Auckland Opera, and performed only in Auckland)
2003 NBR New Zealand Opera (both Wellington and Auckland)
2005 Canterbury Opera

Nine different productions in the fifteen years after 1980! None after 2005 till the present. And that typifies the drastic decline in the range of operas produced all over the country after the flourishing decades of the 80s and 90s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *