Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Opera Australia – Puccini’s Tosca. February 16, 2010.

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Circle (Seat N25, A$105).

Story: See earlier post.

Conductor – Tom Woods; Tosca – Nicole Youl, Cavaradossi – Carlo Barricelli, Scarpia – John Wegner.

Six of us went to see this show: Anne & me, Steven & Ruth, Tim & Alyson. We had the exact same seats as the last show, and again there were quite a few empty seats in the circle. This time the usher invited us to move up front, so we watched the entire show in seats in Row L. At a price difference of about $40 per ticket, we can tell ourselves we saved $240!

Anne had been reading several write-ups on the production. “Raw” seems to be the term used most often. I expected a graphic rape scene. The show did depict a more explicit sex act (Scarpia in his boxer shorts and Tosca in her slip), but the word raw more aptly describes the dreamlike state the director wants to produce but unfortunately by-and-large fails to accomplish. More on this later.

The opera didn’t start too auspiciously with Cavaradossi’s tentative singing of the first aria (Recondita armonia). After hearing a couple of his missed notes, I was worried how he was going to last the entire opera. A good thing it was probably a case of the nerves since he improved as the show went on. Nonetheless, Barricelli’s overall performance was not that impressive. Interesting, this was the aria that got most applause afterwards. Australians are not into interrupting with applause, but tonight the reluctance was particularly evident. Could it also be due to their not quite knowing what was going on, or their displeasure?

One moral of the opera is that bad things happen to otherwise ordinary people. Even though we knew things were brewing as Cavaradossi was trying to hide a fugitive, the show began innocuous enough: two people in love with the requisite jealousy shown by Tosca. This show did that quite well.

Youl as Tosca in general has a strong voice that carried well. However, the rendition of “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” was quite weak, a pity since this for most is the highlight of the opera. Since we were seated quite far back, I didn’t have a good look of Tosca, thus the strongest impression I got was that she was quite overweight. I worried that she would trip or collapse the chair she was standing on. Okay overall, but certainly not great.

Scarpia was played quite brilliantly by Wegner. It probably isn’t difficult to get the audience to hate you as Scarpia, and he succeeded brilliantly.

Act III was particularly “interesting,” although - in my opinion and that of others in our group – not in a good sort of way. Instead of things happening in real time, what we had was a fantasy (or dream) sequence experienced by Tosca before she herself was executed by a shot in the head. The director felt the need to explain this in the Program Notes, but the synopsis still carried the traditional story, so I think many in the audience got quite confused. It took me a while to understand how the story was being told. The effect just seemed half-hearted and amateurish. Perhaps the use of a projection screen to display various images (a la Met’s Damnation of Faust), more eerie lighting, and other effects can help make it more of a fantasy sequence.

I don’t understand the need to do things of this sort. The story is compelling enough and in any case should stand or fall on its own merits rather than with the help of people who think they know better. The director’s notes also talks about many bodies strewn on stage, which turned out to be an exaggeration: we have the (fake) body of Angelotti, his sister who may or may not be dead (who is actually a shepherd boy in the “original,” and why is she up on top of the cupboard?), Scarpia, and Cavaradossi. Using the basement of a church for the entire opera also didn’t work that well. As we saw on Saturday in Manon, Opera Australia is certainly capable of making elaborate scene changes professionally, so staying with one scene was not needed. One more head-scratching thing was this TV that kept playing in the room next to the basement.

I saw Tosca a few years back with the NYC Opera and enjoyed it tremendously. This doesn’t nearly measure up in terms of the total experience. Indeed I can’t think of any aspect of tonight’s performance that measures up. We are talking NYC Opera, not the Met, although that was one of the better performances I have seen of NYC Opera.

What I said about Manon applies here also: despite my misgivings, I enjoyed the opera. Another observation: a disappointing opera is usually better than a disappointing meal. Earlier the week we had the experience of eating a A$75 two-course lunch at the Quay, that’s when I discovered this way to describe a disappointing meal not worth the money. Pretty clever, if I may say so myself.

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