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10 January, 2010

Tosca at the Sydney Opera House directed by Christopher Alden.

Tosca - Friday, 8 January 2010 - Sydney Opera House.

Dear Colleagues,

Despite all the critical hoopla over this updated production I enjoyed it and would rather like to see it again. The solo voices were magnificent, orchestra in fine form under Andrea Licata and company chorus singers doing their usual professional job.

The mod-drab production would take several pages - even to describe the essentials - and others will do that I dare say. Tosca does not jump in front of the A-Train in Act III but she does not jump off the Castel Sant’Angelo either! You will have to go along to see how the ending of this ‘shabby little shocker’ has been made - certainly more shabby and in some respects more shocking.

We saw the clever arrival in church (actually the vestry) of the Marchese Attavanti in Act I during the Te Deum commotion (the Te Deum has become a parish raffle). Played by Sian Pendry, the beautiful blue-eyed blonde of the story, normally only seen in her portrait, manages to hide in, behind and then atop the confessional box which also serves as the family capella. She responds mutely to the various pieces of news about her brother, the Napoleonic advances and Scarpia’s bad behaviour. Act III is run straight from the end of Act II and it all seems to ‘work’ somehow with the Marchese singing the sad shepherd boy’s song (in tune, unlike some boy sopranos). Her brother’s ‘body’ is brought in, obviously a rag-doll mock-up, and strung up as demanded in the libretto but not normally seen on stage (and to the sister’s mute horror).

There were innumerable other details to this production, many stemming from the story (like the electrocution used for torture) and others seemingly out of nowhere. All were thought provoking and some were quite humorous. Spoletta and Sciarrone were presented as disinterested henchmen who despised Scarpia, just like everyone else. They even conspire to facilitate his stabbing. Surprisingly, each gets a laugh at times in this otherwise grisly thriller.

The death of Cavaradossi remained a mystery to me, as if he just died of delayed electric shock and somehow Tosca could tell as much from the other side of the stage: ‘Presto su, Mario’. There were a few other incongruities - such as how did Cavaradossi ‘fail to recognise’ Angelotti when he was still in the next room (or confessional)?

Rosario La Spina sang brilliantly. His high notes were ringing, his low register secure but with a few glottals and possibly phlegm briefly present. His acting was just fine and compared to Pavarotti he was academy award material. He even youthfully bounded up a tall window frame with Angelotti to make their escape from Scarpia and his hounds in Act I.

Ms Takesha Meshé Kizart gave a sensuous and sensational performance. In contemporary dress and literally ‘to kill’, she was jealous, loving, superior and finally stoic in the face of death. Boots, dress, Ray-Bans and gossamer hair. Her Vissi d’arte was a triumph and the ovation she received ecstatic. The final audience applause included a huge and prolonged standing ovation by a large majority of the stalls patrons but also with a small number with prominent boo’s, largely when the design team finally came out for their own curtain call.

John Wegner, like his stage colleagues, rose to great heights with his portrayal of Scarpia. He had to eat pizza, assault numerous males and rape the heroine and all while belting out a grand velvet tsunami of vocalism. Accolades in anybody’s language.

It must be rare to fine a Sacristan with a louder voice than the other principal singers. Warwick Fyfe did a sterling if coarse and unsubtle job in the minor clerical part … also doubling as jailer in Act III which took place as a continuum from Act II without a break still in the vestry of the church on (or off) the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. Fyfe smoked, coughed, grumbled, genuflected and lit the 12-volt miniature of Jesus … while also doing the gaoler’s bidding in Act III.

Full marks also to Maestro Michael Black and his chorus who provided an excellent and original Te Deum scene and then the off-stage cantata in Act II. Puccini called for an off stage chorus in numerous operas including Madam Butterfly. The chorus appreciate this as they can scrub up, do their last scene and go home early. Puccini also knew the benefits both in drama and practicalities of having his soprano sing initially off stage, a device he does not only use in Tosca. ‘Mario, Mario, Mario’ (shades of ‘Maria, Maria, Maria’ by Bernstein).

The opera finished early, allowing us to take a full and wholesome supper along with the inevitable operatic autopsy.

Unanswerable questions will arise about whether it is appropriate to do anything with this opera after the glorious authentic enstagements of Copley, Zeffirelli and others. If your answer is ‘no thanks’ you need to stay home. Otherwise, with great singing and Puccini’s immortal score this will not fail to exotically entertain.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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