New Zealand Opera’s Tosca: what a production, voices, playing and conducting!

New ZealandNew Zealand Puccini, Tosca: Soloists, Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Tobias Ringborg (conductor). St. James Theatre, Wellington. 10.10.2015. (PM)

Tosca (1)-500
Simon O’Neill (Cavaradossi) and Orla Boylan (Tosca) (c) Neil Mackenzie

Director – Stuart Maunder
Assistant – Tamsyn Matchett
Sets – Jan Ubels
Costumes – Elizabeth Whiting
Lighting – Jason Morphett
Chorus master – Michael Vinten

Floria Tosca – Orla Boylan
Mario Cavaradossi – Simon O’Neill
Baron Scarpia – Phillip Rhodes
Cesare Angelotti – James Clayton
Sacristan – Barry Mora
Spoletta – James Benjamin Rodgers
Sciarrone – Wade Kernot
Jailer – Matt Landreth
Shepherd Boy – Archie Taylo

Jim Pritchard’s 2020 prologue: It would be an injustice to do another full review of New Zealand Opera’s Tosca after something (below) so cogent and informative from Peter Mechen. However, lockdown and the consequent cessation of performances with a live audience during the current pandemic has meant I have gone on a virtual world tour which now has arrived (belated) in New Zealand. At the time of writing there is a little over a month thanks to OperaVision (click here) to see this Tosca (directed for TV by Ronel Shodt). It is highly recommended that you catch it if you can. It was my fourth(!) Tosca in recent months and it just might have been the best of the four!

The performance I re-viewed was the third one earlier in the run (23.9.2015) in Auckland’s ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, and accompanied on this occasion by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Under Tobias Ringborg’s taut conducting their account is rich in instrumental detail and it has a dramatic intensity that is mightily impressive. Stuart Maunder’s updating to post-WWII Italy – when the power of the Mafia went unchallenged and corruption was rife – does full justice to the story. Anyway, we see in Maunder’s Tosca everything we expect to! Tosca sings how there is a car waiting for her and Cavaradossi, but the twentieth-century barely intrudes, apart from the 1950s’ costumes. Orla Boylan is a wonderful Tosca and her ‘take’ on the role is slightly different to what we normally get. Instead of the most jealous and temperamental diva possible, Boylan’s Tosca is insecure, she knows she is beautiful, she knows she is aging: Cavaradossi is her one genuine (last?) chance of a lasting happy future. Throughout her life – as a famous woman – this Tosca has just been the plaything of rich and powerful men and now seeks true love. Listen to the spell she casts with her deeply poignant ‘Vissi d’arte’.

Scarpia is indeed played younger than sometimes we see but Phillip Rhodes is the ideal personification of a capo di tutti i capi (or Godfather to you and me!). This Mafia boss is above the laws of church and state, he does what he wants and expects everyone to do what he says.

Phillip Rhodes (Scarpia) and Simon O’Neill (Caravadossi) (c) Neil Mackenzie

Both Boylan and Rhodes – indeed the whole cast – give superb performances but the revelation of this Tosca for me was seeing and hearing Simon O’Neill as Cavaradossi. As he admitted himself in a short pre-recorded video, ‘My normal repertoire is in the great German composers of the mid- to late-nineteenth century, that is of Beethoven, Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, that sort of thing […] So this is treat for me to be able to sing Italian repertoire.’ Not as much of a treat as it is for those who get to see him in this Tosca! O’Neill’s voice here is ardent, effortless, tireless, lyrical, and resplendently Italianate. It is now at its peak and these qualities can only continue to enhance the Wagner roles which form the majority of the opportunities he gets. O’Neill expressed his delight at singing in his home country after more than a decade away. It was interesting to hear about his affinity with Cavaradossi who he said was ‘Like me really […] he’s an artist and a poet. I’m a musician, I do art myself as well. He’s a character I really have a lot of sympathy for and I feel quite close to him.

In discussing working with his friend Orla Boylan, O’Neill said how working together many times has helped create a ‘completely natural feeling onstage’. Revealingly, he explained how ‘When the woman is singing this close to my head, I can really feel my skull ring and I sort of do the same to her sometimes. When I’m singing that close, in fact a wee secret, I do sometimes put my thumbs in her ears […] The last thing you want is getting your soprano deaf.’ Indeed!

Peter Mechen’s 2015 review: Just what is it about Puccini’s Tosca that draws one into it, time and time again? Sitting in the theatre beforehand I can think of almost as many reasons as there are other operas as to why I would sooner have this or that other work performed instead – and then, those first snarling brass chords hurl themselves from the pit into the auditorium, and the curtain goes up, enveloping us in those quintessential ingredients of conflict and tension – darkness, mystery, fear and flight. I am instantly caught up in Tosca once more, captivated afresh by the music’s power of ambience and emotion, and the story’s knife-edged compulsiveness. It doesn’t matter how many times one has ‘seen it all before’, or that, away from direct contact one can even baulk at the memory of its cruder, more obvious characteristics – when in situ with the work, I find myself in thrall all over again to the same old magic.

And so it proved at Wellington’s St. James Theatre on Saturday night – of course, a work’s success when staged rests as much on the performers’ as the authors’ shoulders, and on this occasion the results were made most thrilling and memorable. The story originated from a play La Tosca, written in 1887 by one Victorien Sardou, and then adapted for the operatic stage by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, Puccini’s regular librettists (they wrote the books for Manon Lescaut, La bohème and Madama Butterfly, as well as Tosca). Illica and Giacosa condensed Sardou’s five acts to three and thirty-five characters to nine singing roles. Both play and opera were set in Rome in 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars, the drama taking place in actual buildings named in the story and which still stand in the city.

Puccini went to considerable lengths to ensure the accuracy not only of place but of the opera’s time, referring to actual historical figures and the times and places where the battles they took part in were fought. He also took great care to accurately represent the liturgical practices of that era, as shown during the majestic Te Deum, sung in the opera’s Act I finale. He even listed all the bells and the pitches of their notes which sounded from different churches around the Castel Sant’Angelo, and which were reproduced in the score at the beginning of the third act.

Though I have never had any problems equating the action of Tosca with the activities of any repressive regime at any time and anywhere in the world, and the effect upon people who are, throughout the ages, made to suffer as a result, Stuart Maunder’s strongly-focused production purposefully set about to underscore these themes by ‘updating’ the story’s action to post-World War II Italy. We were thus presented with the two political ‘sides’ (Royalists and Republicans) of the original story, as ‘Cold War’ adversaries, Conservatives and Socialists. Apart from a couple of adjustments to the libretto (one involving the proposed use of ‘a car’ by the fugitive lovers near the story’s end), the general gist of the story was drawn straight from the original, to its inestimable benefit.

The production’s twentieth-century dress – Mafia-like suits worn by police chief Baron Scarpia and his henchmen, suave, quasi-artistic attire worn by the artist Mario Cavaradossi, and smartly-tailored outfits for Floria Tosca (a professional singer) herself, I thought worked well for the men but less so for the diva. Soprano Orla Boylan’s Tosca had plenty of impact, but her appearance suggested an imperious, almost institutionalized quality which I felt over-rode much of the character’s suggested flamboyance and volatility, especially throughout her Act II interactions with the villainous Scarpia. By comparison, both Simon O’Neill as Cavaradossi, and Phillip Rhodes as the Baron seemed to put across a kind of instant ’embodiment’ of their characters, naturally enough in their diametrically opposed ways.

One of the opera’s most impressive scenes is the wonderful Te Deum sequence which builds up to a magnificent climax at the end of the first act, as people from the street come into the church to join the clergy and choir. Here, the ‘updating’ made no difference whatever to the visual impact of the ritual, with the regalia of those participating in the service most properly traditional and seeming ages-old, markedly contrasting with the fashionable, secular garb of the congregation, and imparting a timelessness and a kind of universality to the scene, all put across with terrific conviction. It seemed at that splendidly ceremonial moment we had already come a long way from the gloom and furtive terror of the story’s beginning in that same spot.

As for the other two acts, both Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese (with its adjoining torture-chamber!), and the Castel Sant’Angelo parapets overlooking a prison-like courtyard were vividly represented, each location’s fateful aura reinforced by judicious use of the play of light and darkness. The walls of Scarpia’s opulent and spacious study seemed to take on an additional dark and oppressive aspect with the opening of a panel leading to a room containing instruments of ‘persuasion’. For me the only disappointment was the backward, somewhat ‘covered’ placement of the table on which sat the knife which became Tosca’s murder-weapon – to people seated alongside where I was in the stalls, and who were unfamiliar with the story, it wouldn’t been at all clear for a while what the soprano was thinking or doing when she had moved upstage, or what she had actually picked up from the table, however prominent it was all suddenly to become.

As for the castle’s pitiless open-air evocations at the final act’s opening, the freedoms suggested by the beautifully spacious instrumental scoring, the shepherd boy’s song, and the sky’s oncoming day were recreated for us in an atmosphere of almost surreal beauty, almost as if an iron hand in a velvet glove had been at work. The composer’s placement of the doomed Cavaradossi in the midst of all of this eerie serenity and burgeoning promise, was beautifully etched by the production, helping to make the subsequent events all the more brutal and shocking in their finality.

Such scenarios deserved stellar performances from the singers and players, and certainly got them – of course, pride of place in Tosca must inevitably go to the diva who plays the diva. This was Orla Boylan, the Irish soprano last seen on a New Zealand operatic stage two years ago, as Senta, in a curiously pop-art production of The Flying Dutchman. Here, her considerable talents were put towards portraying perhaps the ultimate verismo opera heroine, Floria Tosca. She was certainly a commanding presence on the stage from her first entrance, impressing with her performer’s poise and elegance but giving sufficient notice of her affection for her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, who teased her playfully regarding her jealous impulses relating to the ‘mystery woman’ whose face the artist had reproduced in his painting.

Those imperious qualities, which gave her character such distinction in the first act, didn’t, I thought, serve her quite so well during her confrontation with the arch-villain, Scarpia, throughout Act II. I thought here was needed less outward control, and more flamboyance and overt emotion, more vulnerability in general (as reflected in Tosca’s famous ‘Vissi d’arte’ aria) – and especially the case when playing against the Scarpia of Philip Rhodes, his performance quite the most youthful-looking and virile assumption of the role I have seen to date. It is partly for this reason that I felt this Tosca was played too tightly and maturely, which was especially ironic when one remembered the essentially ‘girlish’ aspect of Boylan’s aforementioned portrayal of Senta in The Flying Dutchman. I simply didn’t feel very much sexual tension being generated between predator and victim – it all seemed strangely unmotivated by both appearance and body language throughout much of the scene.

Under these circumstances it was then a great relief that the lecherous Baron’s murder was done so well, even if Tosca’s preparatory act of picking up the knife and concealing it barely registered for me at all. Once, however, Scarpia’s advances were made, and Tosca responded, their deadly encounter was all on with a vengeance, and made a most spectacular and gratifying dramatic effect. And while we had to do without the ritualistic candles being place at various points about the corpse when it was all over, we did get the crucifix placed on the dead Scarpia’s breast by Tosca with all due ceremony and reverence for the dead before God.

Thus galvanized, Boylan’s singing and acting together with Simon O’Neill during the final act seemed to me by comparison so very alive and tremulous, each heart-warmingly responsive to the other, she touchingly assuming some ‘control’ over the business of the supposedly ‘fake’ execution ordered by Scarpia, and then grief-stricken at the realization that she has been betrayed, and Cavaradossi truly killed. What is more, one had to hand it to her in spadefuls for dispensing with any ‘double’ or ‘effigy’ and herself making the final spectacular ‘leap’ from the parapets to her enacted death, all in the best verismo tradition!

Whatever it was which contributed to Boylan’s reined-in responses to Scarpia’s various blandishments, threats and advances, she seemed to me freer and more ‘open’ in tandem with Simon O’Neill’s portrayal of Mario Cavaradossi. And no wonder, as the New Zealand tenor gave a performance that I think will be talked about here for years to come. I had been listening of late to Giuseppe di Stefano’s EMI recording of the role with that nonpareil of Toscas, Maria Callas (in the programme notes wrongly dated by the writer as 1964, whereas it was made eleven years earlier) – and Simon O’Neill’s singing had a similarly exciting and heroic quality, a fearless aspect certainly keeping with the stage character, but appropriately glorying in Puccini’s virile, extroverted writing for the tenor voice.

Completing the triumvirate of principal voices was the aforementioned Phillip Rhodes, I thought, strictly speaking, too youthful a Scarpia in aspect to be ideally-matched with his Tosca on this occasion, but singing and acting with incredible presence and power. His physical attractiveness certainly added an extra dimension to the role, but one I didn’t think was ‘taken up’ with any marked focus – apart from Tosca’s murder of her would-be seducer, the most volatile and rapier-like interplay between the two characters was the diva’s jealous and splendidly distraught ‘throwing-down’ of the portrait of the Magdalene in front of the gloating, insinuating Scarpia. But, on his own, Rhodes generated plenty of his character’s presence with wondrous vocal splendour – his delivery of ‘Va, Tosca’, during the lead-up to the Te Deum, had all the authority and menace one could wish for, as did his ‘seducer’s creed’ at the beginning of Act II, ‘Ha più forte sapore’.

The lesser roles were in excellent hands, featuring James Clayton’s properly desperate and agitated Angelotti as a fugitive on the run from the authorities, Barry Mora’s good-humoured but somewhat vexed and perplexed Sacristan, fielding the liberal attitudes of Cavaradossi with a mixture of tolerance and admonishment, and Scarpia’s two henchmen, James Benjamin Rodgers as Spoletta and Wade Kermot as Sciarrone, both appropriately ‘heavy’ and insinuating as required. A nice touch of humanity was afforded by Matt Landreth’s Jailer, with his refusal to take Cavaradossi’s ring, offered in return for supplying the condemned man with pen and paper at Act III’s beginning.

Supporting all of these on-stage efforts was orchestral playing of, by turns, strongly-wrought atmosphere, terrific vigour and heartwarming tenderness from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (having its ‘turn’ in the pit for the opera) directed with energy and and sensitivity by conductor Tobias Ringborg. As powerful and arresting as were the work’s opening (and reiterated) brass chords, so were the many percussive effects properly menacing, and the lyrical lines generously warm-hearted throughout. I have already mentioned the bells and their beautifully-judged presence, particularly at Act III’s beginning – but the opera’s many instrumental detailings (notably the clarinet solo introducing Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’, also in the third act) were superbly finished and unerringly focused in tandem with the dramatic action.

So – what a production! What voices! What playing and conducting! – what a great experience in the theatre it all was. When considered together with NZ Opera’s earlier and equally stunning La cenerentola, this Tosca has capped off for the company a truly memorable 2015 season.

Peter Mechen

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