TOSCA at Sydney Opera House

Reviewed by Nick Terrell
January 17, 2010

Opera Australia's current season of Tosca, directed by Christopher Alden, came to life in 2002 as a production by Opera North in the UK. It was the first new production of Tosca in nearly 30 years. Alden, who has a reputation for his challenging and controversial productions, gave Puccini's most melodramatic opera much more than a polish and a retread.

The Opera world is unusual in the performing arts, it's limited repertoire means that regular audiences have developed a strong sense of ownership over staples and favourites. This makes for audiences that feel entitled to convey their feelings directly to the performers and production teams. Long and effusive ovations are one manifestation of this uninhibited investment and strategically deployed booing is another. Alden's Tosca has provoked responses at both extremes – the first night crowd at the Sydney Opera House gave plaudits to the singers, but when the creative team joined them at the curtain call, scattered booing could also be heard.\

Alden is philosophical about audience responses to his Tosca, “I assume it will get a range of reactions … what I really care about is getting a response – that's what art and theatre are about.” Alden would have been gratified to hear the animated discussions taking place among the throng as an energised audience filed out of the Opera House. “The music quite clearly calls for the presence of a firing squad, it's in the score, you can hear them coming in. And even if the set had been any good, you can't have the same one for all three acts.” That was to the left. This was from the right: “If that was the first opera you ever saw, you'd be hooked for life.” And the left again: “Oh well, it's got us talking hasn't it. I mean people will be talking about that, they won't be filing out in silence from that production.” For the purist on my left, then, many galling liberties had been taken. The more moderate afficianado was probably represented by a lady sitting nearby who shook her head disapprovingly when Tosca died (other than by a leap from the parapets) but a moment later burst into enthusiastic applause as the performers took their bows.

The set, as it happens, makes a striking first impression. A giant Forza Italia poster tells us quickly and succinctly that Puccini's Napoleonic era drama has been shifted forward to play out in the midst of Berlusconi's eventful first reign as Italian Prime Minister. The set has a glorious scale, the cavernous space is part church vestry, part town hall and part faded workshop. On top of its impressive looks, the set design incorporates efficient and inventive solutions which allow the single setting to accommodate the various conceptual spaces required by the story. The single locale may call for some feats of imaginative interpretation from the audience, but at the same time it confines and focuses the warring passions, energies, appetites and ideals. There is no alleviating change of scenery, no prospect of external intervention. This confinement is emphasised with an effect that is also, on a purely musical level, quite beautiful. At the start of the second act, Scarpia lurks in the vestry listening to the public celebration taking place in the streets. Spilling into the set from the tall side window, the morning sunlight and the muted, unseen choral celebration are a poignant contrast to the bleak imbroglio unfolding onstage.

tosca_1_400And so, the plot itself – let's recap: Cavaradossi and Tosca are lovers. He is a painter and an idealist, she is a successful singer and a jealous lover. With the fall of the government in the air, Cavaradossi is suspected of harbouring an escaped political rebel called Angelotti. The brutal and manipulative chief of police, Scarpia, arrests and persecutes Cavaradossi in order to coerce Tosca into gratifying his desire for her. Tosca bargains her consent against Cavaradossi's life and their safe-passage. Scarpia agrees - he promises that Cavaradossi's execution will be a charade and seemingly gives orders to that effect to his subordinates. He then sets about claiming his ‘payment' but Tosca stabs and kills him with a knife provided by Scarpia's underling Spoletta. Tosca waits for the mock execution but Cavaradossi is executed for real. Scarpia's underlings find Tosca and set about tying up a loose end. With her safe passage tucked in her bustier, she fulfils her tragic fate.

Alden's iconoclastic approach to the opera canon is widely acknowledged. All other innovations aside, though, the iconoclasm in this production of Tosca is quite literal. With no disrespect to the supporting cast, it would be fair to say that the four main players in Christopher Alden's interpretation of Tosca are Cavaradossi, Tosca, Scarpia and the Madonna. Among the small bank of wooden chairs that look to have been roughly pushed to the wall (after choir practice or some kind of meeting) there are a conspicuous number of icons, busts and plaster casts of the Madonna. On her first appearance in the jumbled vestry, Tosca restores the disregarded Marys to a dignified state. Alden sets up numerous visual, conceptual and emotional parallels between Tosca and the immaculate virgin – at one point she sets a bust of Mary up on a chair and sits herself down opposite it. Tosca herself seems unhappily caught between a kind of identification with this idealised and objectified figure and a reverent adoration for the purity of the Madonna's spiritual aura. Tosca's lover, the painter Cavaradossi, and her tormentor, the police chief Scarpia, also share a Marian fixation. Cavaradossi's interest is abstract, pure and idealistic, Scarpia's is a fetishistic, psycho-sexual amalgam of the Madonna / whore complex. Scarpia courts a bust of the Madonna in anticipation and at the height of his fantasy he thrusts the Madonna's face into his crotch. “Tosca, you make me forget God.”

Alden intends to shock, but Scarpia's gradual unravelling, with the liberties and travesties he allows himself, proceeds at a well measured pace. Scarpia's creed and Berlusconi's slogan match perfectly: ‘piu forza' - with force. In his unwelcome desire he is unmanned, turned supplicant. Scarpia subsequently revels in Tosca's antipathy because the force that will be required to overcome her resistance will both prove his power over her and punish her for provoking yet resisting his lust. The minor details of John Wegner's performance through this intense passage ensure that while this somewhat pat clinical pathology is definitely played out, it is not the beginning and end of Scarpia's persona. Presaging his villainy, for example, Scarpia playfully walks a line of tiles by the fireplace as if it were a tightrope. In forming his plan – “him to the scaffold, her into my arms” - he compares himself to Iago, but is strangely blind to the trajectory of that comparison. As the moment draws closer he alternatively writhes and lolls in a capacious armchair anticipating his pleasure. When the deal has been made, Scarpia slowly removes items of his clothing like a torturer taunting his prisoner with the sight of the whip. One minute he is kneeling before Tosca, as if seeking absolution for what he's about to do, the next he is roughly pulling her out of her ball gown, then tending the garment reverently as he lays it out safely over a chair. When his gentle ministrations to the dress are complete, he violently tussles with Tosca and pins her to the floor.

Scarpia gives his first words in the deep incantatory tones of the Latin mass – an example, straight away, of the warped pseudo-piety through which he appropriates the authority of the church. In his self-serving misuse of power, Alden's Scarpia is created in the image of Berlusconi. In his sadism and his distorted sexual energies, Alden's version of the evil baron perhaps owes more to Dennis Hopper in David Lynch's Blue Velvet than to anything seen before on an opera stage. Wegner's impressive vocal and physical performances build on the score to animate Scarpia with a fervour that is reverence, lust and hatred all ruinously tangled up together.

The tone of Tosca's opening scenes is set firstly by Cavaradossi's temperament, they are earnest and good-willed but also dramatic and proclamatory. With Tosca's arrival the mood begins to alternate between passion and anguish as Tosca conveys the intensity and the insecurity of her attachment to her often distracted lover.  

Rosario La Spina's vocal performance far outshines his stagecraft, but this is not greatly to the detriment of the whole because Cavaradossi is, when it comes down to it, something of a bystander. The real heat is generated by the friction between Tosca and Scarpia. Wegner and Takesha Meshe Kizart combine excellent vocal characterisation with acting skills and body language that intensify the emotional direction of the score. Kizart excels in the vulnerability she brings to Tosca's passion, and in conveying her sense of being at the mercy of emotions that are a liability in a cynical world. Similarly, her quiet but adamant insistence ‘paint her eyes dark,' cuts right to the core of her unsettled love for Cavaradossi – it is always resilient but dogged by insecurity. Kizart also excels in the quiet final phase of the much loved ‘Vissi d'Arte'.

For Alden, libretti are always open to adaptation, but he defers absolutely to the authority of the score. Following the direction from Puccini's score, Wegner's extreme and compelling Scarpia is by no means an outrageous interpretation. Perhaps this Scarpia is simply the kind of deeply psychologised villain that we insist on from our modern, sophisticated storytellers. Alden has picked up on an energy that Puccini certainly felt also - it's apparent in the change that Scarpia's presence brings about in the rhythms, instrumentation and phrasing of the score.

As mentioned before, Alden is prepared to take liberties with a libretto to bring new life to well known stories. In Tosca, he has reconfigured the motives and logic that drives the sequence of deaths in the final scenes. Scarpia's subordinate is complicit in his murder – once the chief has been unhinged in his lust for Tosca, his police force literally and symbolically turn their back to permit his killing. Spoletta's contempt for Scarpia is not a moral stance, it suggests contempt for his carelessness, his vulnerability and his failure to properly value and protect his position. Spoletta has toppled a despot in order to take his place – brutality trumped by brutality, with more brutality to come. Tosca has been his murder weapon and she must be disposed of. Regardless of the fine detail, the broad significance of Alden's changes remains true to the high stakes and the extreme emotions the music insists upon: Tosca, like Angelotti and Cavaradossi, has been crushed by the warped excesses of a moribund system.

In Alden's Tosca, the currents of revolution and counter-reaction have been stripped of hope and altruism. Similarly, the spiritual rewards promised by the church, have been replaced by the arbitrary financial rewards of the National Lottery. The period charm of past Toscas will be mourned by many, but if opera is to outlive its current audience in any meaningful way, productions like this have a major role to play in stimulating and challenging audiences old and new.