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Operatic thriller

Review: Freeze Frame Opera, Tosca ⋅
Centenary Pavilion, Claremont Showgrounds, June 8 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Tosca is opera’s closest thing to a thriller. Puccini’s late romantic opera with its jealous lovers, political activism and gender violence is set within Napoleon’s imminent invasion of Rome and unfolds in a seamless blend of arias, recitatives and choruses.

The design team behind Freeze Frame Opera’s groundbreaking productions of La Boheme and Pagliacci have transformed the Centenary Pavilion at the Claremont Showgrounds into an opera set of cinematic proportions. In typical FFO style the opera has been trimmed and subtitles adjusted to sharpen the action, but the key elements remain and purists won’t be offended. Plus the audience gets to experience the show from grandstand seating while enjoying pizza and beverages – what’s not to love?

Director Rachel McDonald has updated the opera to the Cold War. On opening night crackling loudspeakers announce the escape of the political prisoner Angelotti, who staggers into the pavilion through a side door.  The painter Cavaradossi and his lover the famous singer Tosca help him escape and the suspense begins as Scarpia, the chief of police begins to hunt them down.

Robbie Harold’s set design makes fabulous use of the pavilion, maximising its vastness for the Act One cathedral and Act Three warehouse (with prisoners arriving for execution in the trunk of a vintage car). Even more impressive was the almost claustrophobic intimacy achieved in Act Two. Curtains framed the chief of police Scarpia’s office, revealing at various points Scarpia showering (in silhouette) and the graphic torture of Cavaradossi (a dramatically committed Jun Zhang) taking place. Meanwhile front and centre Scarpia (a menacing James Clayton) attempts his final conquest: the rape of Tosca.

Harriet Marshall as Tosca, wreaking her revenge on Scarpia (James Clayton). Photo Robert Frith.

But Scarpia’s political and social power is crumbling and as Tosca wreaks her revenge police agent Spoletta (cast in a fabulous twist as a woman) watches with grim satisfaction. This is a post #metoo Tosca (sung by Harriet Marshall) who takes charge, masterminds rescues and brings hope to those around her, ultimately at great cost.

McDonald’s characteristic attention to detail deepens the story. The meta-narrative is elucidated by Mia Holton’s video projections (Scarpia’s face is superimposed onto the Madonna, Tosca becomes a poster girl for the revolution) while McDonald’s stage direction draws out extremes of tenderness and violence from her cast. Even Jerry Reinhardt’s lighting helps develop character (a halo spotlight for Scarpia) and Tommaso Pollio at the piano invests Puccini’s voluptuous score with real emotion.

Clayton is terrifying as a vocally imposing, glass-smashing Scarpia and Pia Harris is a mix of swagger and frustration as the bullied Spoletta. Kristin Bowtell is a desperate Angelotti and Robert Hoffmann doubles as the Sacristan and Jailer. Zhang, his voice a little worse for wear, nevertheless steals the show with his exquisitely intimate O dolci mani (Oh sweet hands). Gliding through it all is Marshall, singing with vocal splendour as the glamorous, jealous, terrified and gutsy heroine.

FFO has done it again; don’t miss this thrilling night at the opera!

Tosca continues at the Centenary Pavilion until June 14.

Pictured top:  Scarpia (James Clayton) seducing the unwilling Tosca (Harriet Marshall). Photo by Robert Frith.

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