This is a powerful and compelling production of one of the great operas of the repertoire. The John Copley production has been around for 30 years, but Opera Queensland shows that breathing new life into an established format can be much better than novelty for its own sake.
With Puccini’s glorious music, vivid characters, relentless plot and spine-tingling scenes of torture, murder and execution, a well-performed Tosca is a rare theatrical experience.
The sets designed by Allan Lees are as stunning as any opera sets can be the baroque church of act 1, Scarpia’s palace quarters in act 2, and the ramparts of the Castel Sant’Angelo in act 3 (which brought applause from the audience). While unlikely that the imposing stone angel above the turrets would have been floodlit in 1800, it is indeed a powerful part of the setting.
The overall visual richness of the production is enhanced by the costumes and lighting, together with the sheer artistry of such scenes as the ‘Te Deum’ that closes act 1.
Adding to the opulence is the richness and variety of the orchestral music under conductor Nicholas Braithwaite, plus the robust work of Narelle French’s chorus, including the children who run amok and then contribute to the singing in church.
Cheryl Barker is a richly resplendent Tosca, beautiful in voice and appearance. Her scenes with Scarpia are harrowing, distressing and totally engrossing. Her “Vissi d’arte”, which she opens from a semi-prone position on the couch, is the most beautiful and dramatic of any live performance of this aria I’ve seen.
As Cavaradossi, Julian Gavin sings with good intonation but not quite the crystal clarity desirable. Gavin doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in the role and was not up to the high standard he set as Ramades in Aida last year.
But Douglas McNicol’s rich baritone is perfect for the role of Scarpia, whose pervading evil he embodies with relish.
Other splendid performances come from John Bolton Wood, an entertaining and earthy sacristan, the ever-reliable Andrew Collis as the deeply distressed escaped political prisoner Angelotti, the passionate Virgilio Marino as Spoletto and David Hibbard as Scarpia’s minder, Sciarrone. Guy Booth seems a humane gaoler, and treble Oscar Medek sings angelically as the shepherd boy.
Revival director Cathy Dadd has obviously worked hard and imaginatively with her performers and has introduced interesting new touches a spy scurrying from the church when seeing the fugitive, an attractive cleaning lady who draws lustful attention from the sacristan. Dadd has guided the singers as actors into making good use of position and movement to convey their feelings and torments: Julian Gavin patiently puts up with his lover’s jealousy while frantically trying to protect his fugitive friend; Virgilio Marino is in palpable fear of Scarpia when about to give him bad news; Cheryl Barker is like a limp rag after witnessing Cavaradossi’s torture; Scarpia is so sexually energised by the torture of his enemy that you can practically smell the testosterone.
This is an engrossing and memorable Tosca, a credit to Opera Queensland.