Left – Ainhoa Arteta and Teodor Ilincăi. Cover – Teodor Ilincăi, Anthony Mackey and the Opera Australia Chorus. Photos – Prudence Upton
Opera Australia’s current production of Tosca under the direction of John Bell is sheer brilliance. Set in Nazi occupied Rome in 1943, this production is powerfully thought provoking and relevant to the tragedies we are witnessing today. Bell explains: "This is a true story: it has happened many, many times over throughout history, it happened during the world wars, it's happening now, somewhere in the world". At no point during the opera is it necessary to suspend one’s disbelief as in this production the plot seems perfectly believable. The arrival of the soldiers in their Nazi attire carries us to a brutal world where those in power decide the fate of others on a whim. We watch the tragedy unfold: "A tyrannical regime, resistance fighters hunted down, women forced to give sexual favours in order to protect a loved one” – and we are catapulted from the Sydney Opera house stage to World War 2, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first act takes place in a perfectly recreated Roman basilica (set design by Michael Scott-Mitchell) and the orchestra sounds incredible from the word go. Under the direction of Christian Badea, the nuances of Puccini’s score are lovingly brought forth and the orchestra resembles a dark and brooding monster – a heaving mass of unrelenting sinister power. Richard Anderson as the escaped prisoner Angelotti, Luke Gabbedy as the sacristan and Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai as Cavaradossi all sing with plenty of volume and beauty of tone; Ilincai’s upper register is spine-tingling and penetrating. With the arrival of the Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta as Tosca, we hear a powerful voice that has no trouble cutting across the considerable orchestra. Arteta’s portrayal of the jealous heroine is sweet and humorous and her excellent acting elicits much giggling from the audience. The chorus under the direction of Anthony Hunt is stunning and the ‘Te Deum’ – sung to celebrate the victory of the regime – is a highlight of this act, as is the boys’ chorus which provides some light relief with excellent singing and a play punch-up centre stage. The uplifting atmosphere takes a nose dive however with the arrival of Lucio Gallo as the malevolent Scarpia and his Nazi henchmen. Gallo makes a suitably creepy Scarpia and his voice is large, beautiful and impressively secure. The sudden appearance of the Nazi uniforms casts a disquieting pallor across the stage and the young German seated next to me squirmed visibly with discomfort in his seat. These evocative uniforms set against the backdrop of the Catholic Church were doubly powerful given the silent complicity of those in Rome at the time of the Nazi atrocities.
Act 2 opens opens on to a grey and green hued Nazi boardroom in the Farnese Palace – two long Nazi flags hanging from above like vibrant splashes of blood. The stage has become a cage for the drama to take place in, a place where those in charge cruelly tease those who have been captured – a life and death game of cat and mouse. There is a suspenseful sense of impending doom and the machinations of the drama now set in motion are unstoppable – the repetition of sinister musical themes is like a brooding storm awaiting its deadly release. This stark Nazi scene takes us back in time and forces us to ask: How do fanatics come to power? Why do those seeking power always wish to enforce their evil ideologies on the powerless? Scarpia (the powerful) versus Tosca and Cavaradossi (the singer and painter) equals the ideologue versus the free thinker in our society.
The aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ is a prayer to Tosca’s God where she ponders what she has done to find herself in this nightmare. Arteta sings this impassioned plea with a warm tone and great style and her performance is a highlight of the evening. Her refusal to give in to Scarpia’s sexual demands leads to his murder and Tosca drapes one of the red Nazi flags over his body before spitting on him with contempt. In his dying moments, Scarpia can not believe that he has been ‘killed by a woman’ – the humiliation of this is too great – and Tosca voices her utter hatred for him with the chesty enunciation of the words ‘muori, muori, muori’. This scene is a perfect balance of great music, singing and thrilling drama. Other highlights are Cavaradossi’s words ‘Vittoria, Vittoria’ with Ilincia’s voice cutting like a brilliant blade through the air in this impassioned outcry that seems to last forever. Silver-fox tenor David Lewis whose card shuffling is beyond sinister and only to be outdone by his lascivious licking of the ace of hearts card is also memorable. As are Graeme Macfarlane as Spoletta, Adrian Tamburini as Sciarrone, Adrian Escudero-Genc as the shepherd boy and Anthony Mackey as the gaoler.
Act 3 – set in the Castel Sant’ Angelo – is the starkest act visually as we get closer to the inevitable outcome. Cavaradossi sings ‘O lucevan le stelle’ – a beautiful jewel describing Cavaradossi’s love for life. Ilincai’s voice is warm and fluid and the performance is stylish and heartbreaking. Tosca and Cavaradossi also sing a poignant duet set against the backdrop of their impending doom. Ilincai and Aterta blend beautifully and capture the tragedy of it all. In spite of the two protagonists thinking that they will get out of the drama alive, Cavaradossi’s ‘fake/real’ execution goes ahead and the scene is so painfully chilling and ironic. Mario’s murder takes place against a dull grey background and the ominous Nazi uniforms hark back to countless past atrocities. Upon discovering that her lover has been killed, Tosca defiantly offers herself up like a sacrificial lamb to the firing squad. She stands in front of a wire fence and her body is doused in the brightest white light. With her arms raised she takes the bullets, her body pulsating with the impact before she falls to the ground. This ending is far better than the usual suicide and it takes your breath away. In the moment of Tosca’s death we are forced to contemplate all those who have died, who are dying and who will continue to die in senseless wars.
This production is a gem. The orchestra and singing are fantastic, the acting is believable, and the set, costume and lighting design come together in perfect harmony to create something unforgettable. Be sure not to miss it.
Opera Australia presents
Director John Bell
Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 17 February – 31 March 2017