Opera Australia’s spring season in Melbourne opened with John Bell’s production of Tosca, which had its première in Sydney, in June 2013. The company is now adding strong readings of masterworks to its repertoire: this Tosca preceded David McVicar’s brilliant production of Don Giovanni, first performed in Sydney in August and bound for Melbourne next autumn. Both productions are likely to stay in the repertoire for many years, though not perhaps quite as long as John Copley’s production of Tosca, which enriched the company for twenty-five years after its creation in 1981.
Few people had a good word to say for the intervening Tosca: Christopher Alden’s iconoclastic staging of 2010 (which this critic did not see). John Bell, perhaps in something of a reaction, takes few liberties with Puccini’s opera, though some traditionalists might be shocked by Floria Tosca’s fate: no vertiginous plunge from the battlements, but a machine-gunned death amid the barbed wire.
Michael Scott-Mitchell’s three ordained settings – the church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant’ Angelo – look imposing on the big Melbourne stage, and handsomely accommodate the singers and supernumeraries. Only the long, minatory table in Act Two, which is set in Scarpia’s apartment within the Farnese, seems to cramp the drama and inconvenience the singers.
John Bell, who has drawn on Nazi iconography before, sets the drama in 1943, during the Nazi’s brief, atrocity-filled occupation of Rome, rather than in June 1800, during the Napoleonic wars. Bell’s craftsmanship is clear throughout; he draws individual personalities in sure, tiny gestures. At the start, three priests walk across the altar worriedly reading a newspaper, so preoccupied by war news they almost forget to genuflect. The introduction of swastikas is startling. During the mighty Te Deum (ringingly performed here), it is the fascists who preside, not the priesthood. The prelude to Act Three – before Cavaradossi’s entrance – feels a little overdone. Joining Cavaradossi in the notorious prison are families of doomed Italian Jews. No shepherd serenades us: rather, a yellow-starred treble (beautifully sung by young Miro Lauritz).
‘During the mighty Te Deum ... it is the fascists who preside, not the priesthood’
Giacomo Puccini – consummate man of the theatre – was immediately attracted by French playwright Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca, which premièred in 1887. Puccini asked his publisher, Ricordi, to persuade Sardou to allow him to turn it into an opera, but the rights went elsewhere. Instead, Puccini wrote Manon Lescaut (1893) and La Bohème (1896). It was not until 1898 that he began to compose Tosca. The première took place in Rome on 14 January 1900, but only after a fifteen-minute delay following a bomb threat. That first audience admired ‘E lucevan le stelle’ (Puccini was called on stage several times after this greatest of his tenor arias), but the reviews were lukewarm, and he was accused of an interest in sadism because of the serial torture and rapeful negotiations in Act Two, a distaste that may have been accentuated by the presence of the queen of Italy at the première. Realism soon prevailed, along with a recognition of the vocal and orchestral wonders of Puccini’s fifth opera. A century later it is endlessly performed around the world.
Although the opera contains several of the most famous arias and duets in Italian opera, it proceeds in an almost Wagnerian fashion because of the use of leitmotifs. Bernard Shaw, writing in 1894, foreshadowed this in his remarks about Manon Lescaut, where ‘the domain of Italian opera is enlarged by annexation of German territory … There is genuine symphonic modification, development, and occasionally combination of the thematic material, all in a dramatic way, but also in a musically homogeneous way.’
Clearly, this calls for an alert and responsive band. Orchestra Victoria played wonderfully all night, right from those arresting opening chords. Conductor Andrea Molino was admirably alert to the clues and colourings in the score. It felt rather slow at times, notably in Act One, but this suited the principals, who have some arduous singing to do.
‘Orchestra Victoria played wonderfully all night, right from those arresting opening chords’
Bellini once wrote to his librettist Count Carlo Pepoli: ‘Grave on your mind in adamantine letters: A musical drama must make people weep, shudder, die through the singing.’ The composer of Norma could have been writing about Tosca, the melodrama of all melodramas, off-puttingly so for some. Here, the three principals were all good, especially the tenor.
Austrian soprano Martina Serafin (fresh from singing Tosca at the Bastille, and a regular at Vienna in roles like Sieglinde and the Marschallin) had stepped in at very late notice to replace the indisposed Svetla Vassileva (who had herself replaced Tamar Iveri, the sacked homophobe from Georgia). Serafin is every inch the tragedienne (even her curtain call was majestic). Her broad gestures and innate theatricism are just right for Floria Tosca, that complex and capricious diva. The high notes are not terribly powerful, but the warmth of tone, the steadiness and accuracy compensate for that. ‘Vissi d’arte’, Tosca’s aria in Act Two, was sung exquisitely. This was the aria that Maria Callas (one of its greatest exponents) resented because it interrupted the clash between Tosca and her tormentor, Scarpia. Here, John Bell countered the unlikelihood of Scarpia shutting up and keeping his hands to himself for three minutes by sending him out onto the balcony to smoke a cigarette and admire the view from the Farnese.
Mexican tenor Diego Torre never disappoints in these heroic roles. ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was sung brilliantly, and Torre earned his huge ovation. He was particularly good in the big duets with Tosca, notably in Act Three. After planning their escape, the two lovers sing ‘Amaro sol per te m’era il morire’. Hand in hand, front of stage, the two singers simply sang and delivered – an old-fashioned, riveting end to the mighty duet.
‘Serafin is every inch the tragedienne (even her curtain call was majestic)’
Claudio Sgura, our Scarpia – tall, slender, black-shirted, sneering throughout – looked the part without ever fully inhabiting the odious baron. Still, the act-long confrontation with Tosca was powerfully done, and there was a nice touch at the end, when Tosca – instead of fussing around with candlesticks and a crucifix – simply covered Scarpia’s corpse with a convenient swastika. (Did she really need to spit on him too?)
Finally, a nod to the pit. Whatever they did last year in the service of Richard Wagner and his tetralogy has clearly worked. Orchestras formerly sounded tinny and cramped in the State Theatre; now they have real carry and force in this vast, plush space. A similar transformation has occurred next door, at Hamer Hall, where a lamentable acoustic was fundamentally changed during the recent rectifications. This is to everyone’s betterment – musicians, audiences, composers. The old mushy sound in Hamer Hall has been replaced by something bright, ringing, galvanic. Even a fair way back in the stalls and under the circle, where I sat the night after Tosca during the Resurrection Symphony (MSO, Andrew Davis), the effect is quite majestic, and instruments and passages once barely audible now do their work. Someone should dedicate a sonata to those acousticians.