Performance Review: Tosca, West Australian Opera, 5/04/2011

The long awaited new season of Puccini’s Tosca opened in Perth last week, the first times it's been staged here since 1988.  In a production originally directed by Christopher Alden for Opera North in 2002, then again in Sydney last year for Opera Australia to some controversy, we are able to revisit this opera through a new, somewhat disturbing vision.

The action is brought forward to modern day Italy giving the audience a gritty, behind the scenes realism that was not altogether successful, due mostly to the fact that Puccini’s carefully crafted score relies heavily on historical references and nuances, that when taken out of its period setting sit somewhat uncomfortably in a modern setting.  The Set, a church basement for all three acts, was a work of art in itself, at once able to encompass all three acts convincingly given the restrictions imposed on it due to the interpretation.  The contrast of the office where the Sacristan spent most of his time with the ornate back of the confessional booth which doubled as the torture chamber was superb, as was the scattering of saintly statues and old paintings in the process of restoration.

In the most impressive opening scene I have seen staged of this opera, with Angelotti's inspired entrance, we were quickly whisked into a seedy world of depravity accompanied by a Sacristan of dubious personal hygiene and habits, brilliantly played by Andrew Foote who doubled as the gaoler.  The other minor characters were very well cast, the standout performance by being the gripping portrayal of Sciaronne by Christopher Lewis. It was a nice touch in characterization, especially with the audience realisation that Scarpia's henchmen hate him as much as the rest of Rome and would like to see him dead.

Of the three leads, we had varying performances, from the outstanding to the very average.  Dario Volonte as Cavaradossi was unfortunately the weakest link in what looked on paper to be a strong trio of Principals.  He started nicely and has a wonderful Italianate colour to his voice, his Recondita Armonia was acceptable with some nice portamento but as an actor he failed to engage.  He seemed strangely detached from Tosca in the Act 1 love duet as with his following interaction with Angelotti and in Act 2 his voice increasingly buckled under the pressure.  His Vittoria was laboured and without a hint of heroism, and by the time E lucevan le stelle was over I was fearing for his vocal health, it was painful to hear.  After his fantastic portrayal of Dick Johnson two years ago, this was a disappointment..

Anke Hoppner on the other hand, gave her all as Floria Tosca and aptly showed the disintegration of Tosca's mental state throughout proceedings.  Her high notes were impressive and sung with skill but it was in her middle register that she lacked strength and there was no use of chest voice either, which to me is necessary for Tosca.  In Act 1 her entrance was passionate and she was delightful in the love duet, so charmingly smitten with Cavaradossi and the way she scattered gerberas at the feet of the Madonna was delightful.  Her confrontation with Scarpia later in the act was absolutely masterful, but I felt that the characters pain and jealousy went for nothing, because of the unnecessary emphasis placed on the character of Scarpia here.  That said, the moment he smelled her handbag was a nice, creepy touch as well as the way he flicked the Holy Water at her.  Their interaction in Act 2 (again with more smelling, this time her gown) was highly personal and her distaste of him was highly evident from the onset.  The rape and murder was one of the dramatic highlights of the night, done to shock obviously, but done well.  
Hoppner is an excellent singing actress but in this performance her vibrato was on the harsh side, which obscured the light and shade she tried hard to use to colour her characterisation.  The Vissi D'Arte, while gorgeously phrased and moving, didn't quite win me over due to high notes that were clipped slightly short and a lack of mid-range, she does have however a wonderful legato.  In all I thought she was strongest in Act 3, even though I hated the costume, she was thrilling in her description of the killing of Scarpia.  Her descent into the madness required of the character after this was nothing short of gripping.

It's not every day one gets to see the role debut of a performer the calibre of Teddy Tahu Rhodes, but his performances of Scarpia mark what I believe will be the beginning of a long association with the role.  It was without doubt an incredible portrayal, so very repellent and sexy at the same time, you could not take your eyes off him.  His entrance was impressive and his ensuing interrogations were well characterised.  There was only one moment of vocal weakness in his entire performance (Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio) and his Act 2 soliloquy one of the best I have heard.  His death was well handled and uneasy to watch and every nuance was not wasted, down to the biting of his fingernails. Teddy Tahu-Rhodes made you hate him from the onset of this terrifying, psychotic characterisation, the stuff nightmares are made of.

WASO under the direction of Joseph Colaneri, a Puccini specialist from New York, were at their peak and played impressively.  His was a nicely paced reading and gave much room for the singers to expand their phrasing when desired.

There were a couple of “What the?” moments in the staging, such as the re-emergence of Angelotti half way through the love duet of Act 1 out of the confessional to sit among coats on hangers on the opposite side of the stage, only to remain in view for the rest of the duet and then Tosca walk straight past him without even batting an eyelid.  Then of course was his corpse in Act 3, but I won’t spoil that bit.

The appearance of the Attavanti in Act 1 made no sense at all either, let alone the fact that she remained onstage for the rest of the opera.  Her entrance was rather awkward and it looked as is she had wandered out of her dressing room and onto the stage by accident, it was unclear as to whether it was Cavaradossi or Scarpia she had come to see.  I cannot to this day understand why not one of the characters saw her there they were right underneath her during the torture scene and this undermined the credibility of the action in this part of Act 2.  It has been suggested that the reason why she sang the Shepherd song at the beginning of Act 3 was due to a distinct lack of Shepherds in the modern day city of Rome, that I can understand.  Played by Zoe Kikiros, she delivered a nicely sung Io di sospiri.

Act 3 was the weakest dramatically, even though it illicited the best singing from Hoppner for the evening.   I was under the impression that some of the action during the evening, for example the rape scene and parts of Act 3 had been toned down for the Perth audience.  But amongst this there were moments of incredible insight, both into the action and motivation behind these events.

It was a valiant effort by all concerned in this production but I can’t help but thinking that the staging would have been better suited to Mussolini’s Rome than Berlusconi’s.  The costumes were as good as you are going to get in a production set like this, designed by Jon Morell, and Tosca’s Act 2 gown was gorgeous, apart for the fact she was wearing the same jacket as in Act 1 with it, not a Diva’s behaviour if you ask me.  I also had problems with the fact she sang Act 3 in her lingerie, but that I guess heightened her sense of, and now I think about it, the audiences, vulnerability. 

There are many references in this opera which make a successful modern staging difficult, and the anachronisms in this were hard to miss, such as the lack of cannon fire in the Te Deum, which lessened its aural impact and no gunshots to murder Cavaradossi with, which seemed out of place considering they are written in the score.  There were unintended moments of hilarity as well, and always in moments of great emotional depth, even Tosca’s death got a laugh, which was most unfortunate but almost deserved.  There were some very nice touches of verismo acting as well, showing that these singers were well and truly inside their roles, such as the use of the sink as the Holy Water, Scarpia's pizza and beer dinner and the interactions during the torture scene.

All in all a powerful evening of opera, it was certainly thought provoking and an emotional rollercoaster, a bit like ‘Puccini meets the Saw Movies’.  I left His Majesties’ feeling decidedly uncomfortable, but it's important to be challenged in ones' view of a much loved work of art.  After a powerful performance such as this I realised that the Director has definitely achieved his goal to ‘slap the audience full in the face by the horror of what human beings are capable of doing to each other’.  Definitely worth seeing.

All pictures courtesy of West Australian Opera, taken by James Rogers