Left – Rachelle Durkin. Photo – Stephanie Do Rozario
Tosca is an all-time favourite. Though famously described by Joseph Kerman as a “shabby little shocker”, it had countless productions in the 20th century, including the Covent Garden production of 1964 with Maria Callas in the title role which ran for 40 years. It has been set in various different periods, including, by Jonathan Miller, in the Nazi occupation of Rome, and the 1992 production for Italian television using the three buildings in Rome in which its three acts are set. Both of these remind us that, like the Roman buildings, the terrible abuse of power, sexual and otherwise, is still with us, and Patrick Nolan’s production for Opera Queensland underscores this too.
Dominated by the powerful, evil figure of Scarpia, who is the Minister for Home Affairs in the Rome of 1800, Puccini’s drama of unsuccessful revolutionaries and fascist brutality orbits around him. Jose Carbo is very strong in this role, his rich baritone easily carrying over an orchestra which at times threatened to cover some of the other singers. His attempted rape of Tosca in the second act was made even more vile by the setting of the first act, which takes place in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The conspirators are described as committing offences to the holy Church, thereby linking the Catholic Church to Scarpia’s fascism, and thus it was hard to dispel the shadow of that figure who worked for many years in the Vatican, not far from the prison of the Castello Saint Angelo which is the setting of the last act – Cardinal Pell.
None of this was at all heavy-handed in Opera Queensland’s production, which transposed the action not to present-day Australia but to a 1970s Italy. I very much like such transpositions of operas. While some are far-fetched, Patrick Nolan’s wasn’t – and they serve to show that the actions depicted in the drama are not a product of one particular era, but occur again and again.
Rachelle Durkin’s passionate, vibrant interpretation of the title role was compelling. Although her light lyrico spinto voice sometimes seemed hardly equal to the more sustained passages of the score, she looked so much the part of a young opera singer, elegant and beautiful, and acted so convincingly that, all told, her performance was riveting. And that is what counts, as the first great opera composer Monteverdi, for example, would have been the first to agree. The comparably feisty title role of his opera L’Arianna was sung at its first performance in 1607 not by a singer at all, but by an actor.
Somehow Puccini’s women are seen from the outside, but his men from the inside, be they horrible (the baritones) or beautiful (the tenors). Angus Wood really got inside Cavaradossi, and his tenor has that cello-like quality I love in singers of Italian opera. The director Patrick Nolan imagined this character, who is an artist, starting off as no more than sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, but when he sees the foul actions of the regime close-up becoming heroic – much like the poet Behrooz Bouchani during his incarceration on Manus Island. Wood’s rendering of “E lucevan le stelle”, understated at first, became searingly intense as he remembers, while on death row, the early flowering of his love for Tosca.
The other principal singers are relatively minor, but I have to say that Angelotti, sung by Sam Hartley, was unconvincing as the hardened revolutionary. I think he was directed more as a man derailed by torture and imprisonment than as someone who would fight to the death for the cause.
Oliver von Dohnanyi conducted the score with great passion and integrity. To my mind the Queensland Symphony Orchestra was wonderful in giving clarity and bite to the wind instruments, but Dohnanyi was less successful in drawing a vast, soft warmth from the strings to underpin the more lyrical moments. More German, perhaps, than Italian.
Tosca sings in the third act, “It’s only a play”. But in the end Cavaradossi is murdered. The audience goes out of this extremely moving performance of Tosca saying, only half convinced, “It’s only a play”.
Opera Queensland presents
Director Patrick Nolan
Venue: Lyric Theatre QPAC
Dates: 13 – 22 June 2019
Tickets: $94 – $184