It’s good to see a guy in a suit rushing through a stage door and stumbling to the floor. It means there’s going to be plenty of drama on stage and, for an opera, that the scenario is going to be set in the modern age, making the passion and drama even more relatable.
Set in the 1950s, the West Australian Opera’s refreshing take on Puccini’s classic operatic tale, Tosca, sticks to its key themes of defiance, sacrifice and betrayal, but posits our protagonists in a setting that take its stylistic cues more from Mad Men than original setting of 1800 Rome. Intriguingly, the premiere production of Tosca was hosted at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome in January 1900 – a hundred years on from when the opera was actually set, hence even then aesthetics would have been shaken up. But to drop it into the 1950s, when international commerce was just taking off, juxtaposed with conservative values such as staunch religion, the plot comes across as even more profound.
To the plot, then. The Kingdom of Naples controls that of Rome but is threatened by Napoleon’s invasion of Italy following the French Revolution. As republicanism collapses and shifts to royalism, a general of the secret police, Scarpia, is busy committing republicans to prison. Which brings us to the aforementioned dude in a suit who has scattered to the floor. He is Angelotti, one a republican who has escaped from prison, hiding out in a church where he meets fellow activist and artist, Cavaradossi. General Scarpia tracks Angelotti’s hiding place but is failing to find him in the labyrinth of a building, runs into Cavaradossi’s lover, Tosca, arrests her boyfriend artists, then threatens her with blackmail and tempts her to lust. Here, you can imagine, the drama really kicks in.
In following this narrative, I tried to avoid looking at the surtitles – a first for me – as I wanted to see if I got the general picture simply by observing gestures, changes in pitch and tempo, and picking up bits of Italian I already knew. Success! Which means everything from the costumes and mis-en-scene to the choreography and, most importantly, the recitation of lyrics, were all on point.
You can probably guess how it all ends – all operas end tragically, suffice to say that the final scene in the WA Opera’s version of this classic tale of woe left even me a touch teary-eyed. And I thought I’d seen it all in the melancholic opera department. It’s like watching a sad romantic film for the third time, knowing full well how it’s going to end, but still empathising with the characters and feeling affected, even when you know it’s all made up. Speaking of which, the technicolour approach to the stage design and wardrobe for this latest incarnation of Tosca gives the opera a certain filmic touch. Even the play on shadows lends a Hitchcockian feel to the proceedings. And I do love a bit of postmodern intertextual referencing in my theatre. Antonino Tati
The West Australian Opera’s ‘Tosca’ is on at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth until April 8 (remaining shows April 1, 4, 6 and 8). Tickets are available through www.waopera.asn.au.