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Reviews/Music/Opera

Passionate Tosca heralds new approach

17 July 2022

It’s hard to say which element steals the show in WA Opera’s Tosca, writes Bourby Webster – the set is breathtaking, the singing sublime, and the WA Symphony Orchestra under Rebecca Lang world-class.

Tosca, West Australian Opera ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 14 July 2022 ·

While Puccini’s Tosca may not normally be recommended as an entry point into opera, I strongly encourage anyone who has never experienced the drama, passion and simply glorious experience of the artform to see this production.

Yes, the West Australian Opera staging of a production from Opera Queensland, under director Patrick Nolan, is brimming with over-the-top declarations of love, evil machinations and unspeakable tragedy, but the sheer beauty of the set alone almost makes it worth seeing. 

Tosca, compared with many operas, has a straightforward plot that is easy to follow (aided by surtitles on screens either side of the stage), yet it contains so many of the emotions that make a great love story – passion, jealousy, unrequited love, revenge, loyalty, fighting for a cause and tragic loss.

Cavaradossi (played by the hugely versatile Paul O’Neill) is infatuated with Tosca, a feisty, arrogant, sensuous yet ultimately devoted woman (magnificently performed by Maija Kovalevska). Add in an escaped convict Angelotti (beautifully and dramatically portrayed by relative newcomer, WA Opera Young Artist Jake Bigwood) and a morally bankrupt and totally corrupt Chief of Police, Scarpia (commandingly sung by Warwick Fyfe) and you’ve got all the characters you need to create a powerful tragedy.

Tosca. We see a two-storey set on a stage. The top level has members of a choir in red and white robes. below them are a large group of performances, some in black and white robes
The WA Opera cast amid Dale Ferguson’s impressive two-storey set. Photo: Clinton Bradbury

Tosca is known for its great arias for both Cavaradossi (E lecevan le stelle) and Tosca (Vissi d’arte). Hearing them performed supported by rich and passionate playing from the WA Symphony Orchestra and against a stunning backdrop was a spine-tingling experience. The two-storey set by designer Dale Ferguson reminded me of the Art Gallery of WA’s brutalist architecture, with high ceilings, expansive blank walls and thick pillars. The set and set pieces were designed at offset angles in trapezoid shapes, creating a totally different perspective, giving the impression of being inside a vast and austere cathedral. The set was lit softly and empathetically by WA lighting designer Mark Howett, beautifully enhancing the action.

Tosca. A man in a knitted brown cardigan and a woman in a brown coat holding flowers are locked in a passionate embrace
Cavaradossi (Paul O’Neill) and Tosca (Maija Kovalevska) share a tender moment. Photo: Clinton Bradbury

There was not a weak link in this performance, on or below the stage. The dramatic opening orchestral brass chords were so exciting I jumped in my seat. Outstanding orchestral playing in opera is utterly thrilling and the orchestra brought such a powerful contribution to the action on stage, credit needs to be given to each musician and to conductor Rebecca Lang for drawing such beautiful solos and ensemble playing from the orchestra.

Kovalevska, her intonation perfect, her tone sublime and her theatrical portrayal of Tosca intense to the final seconds of the opera, was the undoubted star, however, O’Neill was a perfect match. Even the smaller roles such as A Sacristan (Callen Dellar), Spoletta (Matthew Lester) and two WAO Young Artists, Jillian Halleron and Lachlann Lawton, as the Maid and Sciarrone respectively, were wonderfully sung and characterfully portrayed. The opera chorus and children’s chorus were also very much on form.

The atmosphere of opening night felt different. While some tuxedos filled the theatre, there were also jeans and t-shirts. Grey heads could be seen, but so too could younger couples and the odd family. Audience members around us were talking during the production, apparently unaware of the “rules” of sitting in silence. Some others were annoyed by this, but to this writer it confirmed a new audience was in the house and I am excited by that.

Chris van Tuinen’s artistic directorship is perhaps heralding the start of a new future for WA Opera – one that retains the opulence of major theatrical operatic production, but also opens the doors of opera to a new audience and a broader demographic.

WA Opera’s season of Tosca continues until 23 July 2022.

Pictured top: Maija Kovalevska delivered an intense performance in the title role of Tosca. Photo by Clinton Bradbury

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Author —
Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the Founder and CEO of Perth Symphony Orchestra one of WA’s newest and fastest growing arts companies. She is a graduate of Oxford University in Music and the Royal College of Music and is a professional violist, lecturer, presenter, and producer. She can’t even look at a playground as she suffers chronic motion sickness.

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