★★★½☆ Impressive individual performances in an otherwise safe production.

Adelaide Festival Centre
November 12, 2016

Puccini’s Tosca is a work of extremes: love, murder and suicide all play their part in a tragic tale of war-torn love. Although the plot has been criticised as melodramatic, at its best Tosca is visceral and dark, accompanied by a masterful score featuring some Puccini’s best-loved arias. It is something of a shame then that State Opera Company of South Australia chose to play this version of Tosca safe. Commanding performances from soloists were let down by a tame approach to theatrics, which brought out the more kitsch elements of the drama, lessening the tragedy and heightening the opera’s melodramatic qualities.

Visually SOSA’s Tosca was beautiful, if traditional. Scenery and costumes by Ashley Martin-Davis painted an expected canvas of 19th-century Rome: the hanging picture of Cavardossi’s Madonna overshadowed conversations of love throughout the first act, whilst in the second act Scarpia’s extravagant quarters highlighted the two-faced nature of a character who conceals lust for blood and women beneath the guise of political leadership.

Rosario La Spina with Andrew Turner and David Cox, photo © Ali Feo

This safe approach to scenery and costumes was mirrored in the way performers were directed. Although all technically present, the violence exacted against Tosca felt two-dimensional. Scarpia’s attack on her felt more like a plot device to drive the conclusion of the final act than a serious exploration of the turmoil faced by the heroine. This made the dramatic choice of the final moments confusing. Tosca’s final demise, in which she curses her nemesis and vows to meet him in the afterlife, sung by Kate Ladner with unwavering resolve, lacked the dramatic backstory to support the end she was seeking. The result was a conclusion that was more confusing than tragic.

While the production may have been lacking theatrically, musically the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra was on point. Maestro Nicholas Braithwaite led a sensitive and nuanced performance of the score, exploring the many colours in the rich orchestration and musical tone painting for which this work is famous. Tosca’s highly detailed harmonic structure rivals Verdi at his finest: at its height the opera can be likened to a canvas by one of the great Italian painters.

Kate Ladner and Mario Bellanova, photo © Ali Feo

There were also a number of very impressive individual performances. Rosario La Spina’s Cavaradossi was masterful: his powerful tenor at times dwarfed the entire orchestra. Of particular note was La Spina’s Recondita Armonia, which demonstrated from the outset that he is world-class talent. Likewise, soprano Ladner gave a commanding performance in the title role. The Adelaide-born soprano, who now spends most of her time in France, sang with all the strength and power that the role demands.

Also impressive was Mario Bellanova whose Scarpia, although the victim of some tame dramatic choices, was polished and powerful. Bellanova has sung Scarpia in many productions and brings to the role an understanding and maturity. His dark and foreboding Va, Tosca! was juxtaposed with a sublime Te Deum performed by the chorus.

Kate Ladner, Rosario La Spina and Mario Bellanova, photo © Ali Feo

Bellanova, La Spina and Ladner were supported by a mixed bag of minor characters played by some fresh new talent. Former SOSA young and emerging artist Jeremy Tatchell played a tormented Angelotti, whilst his contemporary Pelham Andrews played Scarpia’s agent Sciarrone. By contrast, veteran of the Australian stage John Bolton Wood played the Sacristan. Bolton Wood’s was perhaps let down by the dramatic direction. The Sacristan is a character that often offers levity, but without a sufficiently realised overall sense of tragedy his humour fell a little flat. 

A pleasant surprise was the young voice of Angus Brill Reed, who’s off-stage Shepherd’s Song was a moment of true tenderness. As the sun rose over a new day, an innocent soundscape of church bells and the boy with his animals transitioned into an ominous sign of foreboding for the protagonists. Unlike the more dramatic scenes, the stillness and simplicity of this moment captured the essence of the script in a very captivating way.

There is validity in performing well-known and well-loved classics, beyond the fact that they attract large audiences. The beauty of a work like Tosca is enduring. As a programming choice it is a crowd pleaser and a safe bet, but with this comes a responsibility to breathe life into the work, to make the performance meaningful. While the individual components of this performance were impressive, it would have been heartening to see SOSA engage more completely with the story theatrically, and come to grips with the violence, romance and tragedy that plagues the doomed heroine.

State Opera of South Australia’s Tosca is at the Adelaide Festival Centre until November 19