Opera is about voice, voice and more voice. Clothed in marvellous costumes and a life-like Roman Catholic setting around 1940 this Tosca would satisfy the most demanding opera goer and equally, win over any budding novice, largely on the voices which were magnificent.
As Cavaradossi, tenor Mr Yonghoon Lee was first class. Slender, tall and ‘Bohemian’ looking, his splendid performance drew a (partial) standing ovation at the end. His Metropolitan and La Scala appearances were highly praised, with good reason it seems.
Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou performed the title role with gusto, flair and beauty. Her voice is enormous, accurate and well modulated. There is not the length of breath to emulate Caballé in her unique Vissi d’arte, yet the high tensile vocalism was extremely effective and comparisons are odorous, as the Bard wrote. We last heard her in La Rondine with the SSO in 2008 when she was equally impressive.
Veteran baritone John Wegner seemed slightly under-power as the evil Nazi sympathiser Scarpia and one wondered if he was harbouring a winter virus. He was menacing and effective nonetheless.
Supporting artists David Parkin (Angelotti) and John Bolton-Wood (Sacristan) were also excellent.
Direction by John Bell was sympathetic and effective, making this opening one of the most enjoyable opera performances I have heard in Australia for some time. Bell set the piece in the high Nazi period but Swastikas were only used on three occasions, including a ripped red banner used to cover Scarpia’s body. I learned later that two incensed Jewish patrons were responsible for booing at the end. There were a couple of anomalies and some brilliant innovations, including Tosca’s death. Such is opera, raising emotions of all kinds!
It was a major risk doing yet another production of Tosca in Sydney, especially doing 19 performances. So many subscribers have abandoned their long held seats that the company will have enormous trouble clawing back support. Eventually they will run out of musical comedy or else the Australia Council will realise that its funds are not being spent on opera. Each year of late the company has simply replaced the shrinking opera audience with musical comedy to make ends meet. This year has yet another very long season of South Pacific (Sept 8 to Nov 2 in Sydney and up to 12th January 2014 in Adelaide and Perth). That’s a third of the year spent on ‘non-core’ opera activities for the national opera company! The once almost unobtainable Gala opening night seats are now freely available and some people I ran into did not even know that it was opening night.
There are only nine performances with the opening cast of lovers - then Cheryl Barker sings with Diego Torre, both also highly competent artists.
But they are also being overworked. On numerous occasions singers are to perform with only one day’s break, contrary to a long tradition in serious opera houses of using two lay days between performances. During one nine day period they are to sing five performances, a super-human feat some might think. Grand opera is akin to marathon running where pacing oneself in a performance, a season or a career are all crucial decisions.
So if you can get along to the Sydney Opera House I highly recommend this cast and this new magnificent production of Tosca.
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..