Review: New Zealand Opera Defines Tosca The Beguiling Tragedy

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Rome was a frontline, a construct of a burgeoning Cold War, where spies lurked, espionage was rife, as was intimidation and murder, where people became instruments of oppression.

Review by Selwyn Manning.

There’s so much to ponder in New Zealand Opera’s telling of the classic Puccini opera Tosca. There’s the passion, the love, the loyalty, the power and oppression set within the politics of post World War II Italy.

The political turmoil of the period provides a backstory perfectly in tune with Puccini’s story.

In 1946, Italy abandoned its monarchy and established a republic. But its political makeup was divided, the population poised on a knife’s edge. Fascist-styled oppression was still a characteristic of the power elite, and, by 1948, the Communist Party had been expelled from the Parliament and (with the help of the Vatican, NATO, and the Mafia) the Christian Democrats began an enduring hold over all estates of Italian society.

Submerged beneath the flamboyance of Italian politics, its people strove in earnest to reestablish lives long lost. Rome was a frontline, a construct of a burgeoning Cold War, where spies lurked, espionage was rife, as was intimidation and murder, where people became instruments of oppression. Secrets, fear, idealism, loyalty and love were manipulated, used by the black-gloved hand of a power-elite to destroy opposing forces, ideologies, people.

Positioned upon this backstory is New Zealand Opera’s  interpretation of Puccini’s Tosca.

Ireland's brilliant Orla Boylan was the beguiling Floria Tosca.
Ireland’s brilliant Orla Boylan was the beguiling Floria Tosca.

Tosca, the Diva, is in love with Mario Cavaradossi. Her passion is her virtue, her jealousy is her vulnerability, the latter offers her as a pawn to be played by Baron Scarpia the chief of police.

The production team created something special here. The set, the costume, the choreography, the score were in accord perfect to the period.

The cast includes:

Ireland’s brilliant Orla Boylan was the beguiling Floria Tosca. And Boylan was a delight. Her international concert appearances include: War Requiem (Perth International Arts Festival, APO); Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (Gürzenich-Orchester Köln); scenes from Wozzeck (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra); Vier letzte Lieder (Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen, Hallé Orchestra, West Australian Symphony Orchestra); Capriccio final scene (Orchestre National de France).

Boylan’s interpretation drew into the classical characterisations of Puccini’s original Romanian diva while portraying the idiosyncrasies necessary for our post WWII Tosca. Her performance was real and perfectly raw.

Boylan is supported by an almost complete New Zealand born cast. And this, is rather special as it provides us an opportunity to celebrate this nation’s operatic stars.

Ashburton-born Simon O’Neill brought to life Mario Cavaradossi, the focus of Tosca's love.
Ashburton-born Simon O’Neill brought to life Mario Cavaradossi, the focus of Tosca’s love.

Ashburton-born Simon O’Neill brought to life Mario Cavaradossi, the focus of Tosca’s love. O’Neill is an internationally acclaimed world class performer. His credentials include: principal artist with the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Teatro alla Scala and the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals. An alumnus of the University of Otago, Victoria University of Wellington, the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard Opera Center. He is a Fulbright Scholar and was awarded the 2005 Arts Laureate of New Zealand.

His repertoire is extensive displaying an A-List performance-record noting his achievements on-stage at top opera houses from all over the world.
Tosca’s passion was counterbalanced by her inability to escape the grip of Scarpia’s leathered black hand.
Tosca’s passion was counterbalanced by her inability to escape the grip of Scarpia’s leathered black hand.

This was all in evidence as he performed Cavaradossi. It was so easy to become lost within his song, his character, his merit. But one was soon lured back to centre-stage by Tosca’s passion counterbalanced by her inability to escape the grip of Scarpia’s leathered black hand, played by Hastings-born Phillip Rhodes.

Rhodes, like O’Neill, is a celebrated world-class act. His bio details how he graduated with a Diploma in Performing Arts (Voice) from the Eastern Institute of Technology. Was a 2011/12 PwC Dame Malvina Major Young Artist, a joint recipient of the Circle100 scholarship in 2007 and a PwC Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist in 2004. He won the Lockwood Aria in 2005 and Lexus Song Quest in 2007; attended the Cardiff International Academy of Voice; won second prize in the Montserrat Caballé International Singing Competition in Spain in 2010; was a recipient of a Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation (UK) Cover Award for the 2015/16 season
at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden for Enrico (cover) Lucia di Lammermoor.

The sinister Scarpia performed by Hastings-born Phillip Rhodes.
The sinister Scarpia performed by Hastings-born Phillip Rhodes.

The supporting artists were superb: Australia’s James Clayton played the sinister but loyal Cesare Angelotti, New Zealanders Barry Mora played A Sacristan, James Benjamin played Spoletta, and Wade Kernot played Sciarrone.

Tosca provides us an opportunity to ponder the frailties of our humanity, made vulnerable by the times and powers we all live in.
Tosca provides us an opportunity to ponder the frailties of our humanity, made vulnerable by the times and powers we all live in.

And of course, the Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus was exceptional, and the opera’s score was powerfully performed in Auckland by the fabulous Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Sweden’s Tobias Ringborg.

Tosca is a tragedy with a plot perfectly applied to post-World War II Italy. It bridges almost a half-way point in time from Puccini’s opening night in Rome on January 14, 1900.

It provides us an opportunity to ponder the frailties of our humanity, made vulnerable by the times and powers we all live in. The tragedy that marks Tosca’s end is perhaps a challenge to us all to realise how unnecessary such an end is, to realise that by succumbing to petty jealousies we can set in train the demise of ourselves and those we love.

Bravo New Zealand Opera, your performance of Tosca was for me simply the best.

There is still time to see Tosca in Auckland in September and Wellington in October.

AUCKLAND:

ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Accompanied by the
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra – Wednesday September 23 and 25 at 7.30pm and September 27 at 2.30pm.

WELLINGTON:

St James Theatre, Accompanied by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – October 10, 15, 17 at 7.30pm and October 13 at 6pm.

For more, see www.NZOpera.com

 

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues. Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia's FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand's The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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