John Bell's new production of Puccini's "shabby little shocker" is far from shabby but still a shocker.
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 4, 2013
Tosca and John Bell were always going to be an interesting combination. And after Christopher Alden’s generally despised monochrome production of 2010, featuring people crawling on top of wardrobes and the like, Opera Australia were rather in need of a repertoire-worthy staging. Cheryl Barker famously withdrew from Alden’s take on Puccini’s “shabby little shocker”, citing artistic differences, so it was with some curiosity that a matinee crowd got to see her in action taking over the role from Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou.
The first thing to say is that Bell has clearly done his homework on the time and place. His deeply felt updating of the action to 1943 Nazi occupied Rome is both appropriate and striking, bringing what can seem a schlock costume drama into sharp focus and reminding us of how Puccini’s issues of freedom, love, jealousy and tyranny still resonate today. If you felt the Nazi’s in La Bohème were an irrelevant add-on for effect, try this. In Bell’s hands their presence really is what the opera is all about. And that’s not all. He brings years of experience to addressing the nuts and bolts of acting. Seldom do you see such finely crafted relationships and attention to detail. From three priests crossing a vestibule reading the news, to the chilling realisation that the group of people sleeping out in the final prison scene are Jews in transit to a death camp, this production thrives on reminding us of the externals that are driving the protagonists.
Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets are monumentally impressive, from his breath-taking rendition of a Baroque chapel (the finest piece of onstage naturalism in design I’ve seen in the house in years) to the bleak ramparts of the Castel Sant’Angelo with its parapets roped off with vicious looking barbed wire.
Cheryl Barker and Diego Torre are both outstanding in their roles. Tosca fits Barker like a glove and vocally she seems relaxed and comfortable with the many gear changes in the role. Her potent high notes conquer even the beefiest of Puccini’s orchestral tuttis. She also gives a connected reading of the complexities of the woman, capturing that blend of sensuality, maddening suspicion and piety that can sometimes make Tosca a contradiction in terms. The moment when she offers Scarpia her earrings for her lover’s life is poignantly naïve and the subsequent Visi d’arte is most moving, cleverly aided by Bell’s decision to have her enemy step out of the room.
Her Cavaradossi is the Mexican tenor Diego Torre, singing with glorious tone. Vocally he’s a little reminiscent of Mario del Monaco in his prime, coping easily throughout the full range and able to open up on top to thrilling effect. His Recondita armonia is ravishing, taken daringly slowly, but climaxing in a spine tingling B Flat. His acting is noticeably warmer than in Un Ballo in Maschera earlier in the year – it obviously helped him to get out of that mask! Indeed, it’s a credit to Bell, Barker and Torre that these two, who perhaps wouldn’t be the most likely couple to hop into bed together, seem entirely credible as lovers. Their duets are more than just vocal highlights.
Ironically the singer who was to have linked the two casts, John Wegner as the libidinous Scarpia, was indisposed and his place was taken by Australian baritone Shane Lowrencev. I don’t know how much rehearsal he got but this was a thoroughly assured performance. Lowrencev has a strong clear voice and an excellent stage presence – he towers over most of his minions – and he probably cuts a more sexually alluring figure than the man he was replacing. There is a fascinating directorial touch when he plants an oily kiss on Tosca’s hand in church and for a moment you believe that something might come of it. His lackey’s evident discomfort at his enthusiasm for the job says more about him than moustache twiddling ever can.
A fine supporting cast range from David Parkin’s warmly resonant Angelotti to John Bolton Woods curmudgeonly sacristan and the whole thing is kept pushing forward to fine effect by Nicholas Milton in the pit.
At the end of the Te Deum, Bell musters a well-heeled crowd of locals, a phalanx of Nazi soldiers and another group bearing swastika banners into the church. First Scarpia salutes his fellows, then the Romans who are forced to acquiesce. It says a great deal that in this day and age the final full Nazi salute to the audience was still utterly shocking, fully justifying Bell’s take on this classic. Highly recommended.
Tosca plays at the Sydney Opera House until August 30
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