Bloody opera warmly welcomed

Tosca – with its religious ironies, passion and power – was an easy-to-like opera.

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini
September 17-27 ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland
October 10-17 St James Theatre, Wellington

“Now he is dead, I can forgive him.”

Tosca – with its religious ironies, passion and power – was an easy-to-like opera. Presented last night by New Zealand Opera, Giacomo Puccini’s creation has a wide appeal as the multi-generational, receptive audience proved with enthusiasm.

Blood, torture and a firing squad-filled story made the bones of a thrilling watch as did the talented cast. Sass and wit poured out of Orla Boylan’s portrayal of Floria Tosca. Her feisty character heightened visually by her brilliant red ensemble contrasted the pious blues and whites of Mother Mary’s statue and dark wood-panelled church walls in the opening scene. The romantic, freethinking artist Cavaradossi (Simon O’Neill) and the sleazy, greasy Scarpia (Philip Rhodes) were convincing in their tragic ideals, with the latter’s dark looks perfect for his mafia-infused role.

Placed during the depths of the Cold War, the set was simple but dynamic – towering, glowering over Tosca’s tender Vissi d’arte and Cavaradossi’s soaring Recondita armonia. Vocals were impressive but also emotionally charged, with Boylan, O’Neill and Rhodes throwing their character’s full dramatic weight behind each aria. Puccini is “like Italian olive oil on the vocal chords,” according to O’Neill and the extremes of joy as well as evil were palpable across each performance.

Lighting was exact as was Tosca’s gradual costume change throughout the acts, reflecting her character’s progression from the defiant red to the subdued blues of submission and death. Meanwhile, ornamental props such as the dominant cross on sadistic Scarpia’s desk that doubled as Tosca’s murder weapon perpetuated the ironic religious undertones woven throughout Puccini’s creation. Accompanied by the brilliant Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the visceral, powerful music lay the foundation for the melodramatic masterpiece.

It was obvious to opera newcomers like myself that the not all present last night were Tosca virgins. Many in the audience shared a knowing laugh or anticipated their favourite arias. The applauses were full and meaningful. But we were all entertained and held captive right through to the final curtain.