This production of Tosca was populated by leads more associated in the minds of New Zealanders with the works of Richard Wagner; Orla Boylan was an intense Senta in New Zealand Opera's 2013 Der fliegende Holländer while Simon O’Neill was last heard here earlier this year in highlights from Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Luckily, they were largely successful in this foray into the world of Italian opera, helped along by some superbly insightful conducting and an uncomplicatedly effective staging.

Phillip Rhodes (Scarpia) and Orla Boylan (Tosca) © Neil Mackenzie
Phillip Rhodes (Scarpia) and Orla Boylan (Tosca)
© Neil Mackenzie

Orla Boylan brought a strong, vibrant voice and intensity to the title role, Tosca's frequent sudden ascents into the high register powerful and on-pitch (her first act "E l'Attavanti!" is still echoing in my head). Her vocalism was somewhat uneven on this occasion, the tone sporadically losing focus in some of the quieter moments, particularly in Act I. This rendered the Love Duet less effective than later, more dramatic scenes. It is clear, though, that she revels in the theatrical situations offered by this role – her cries of “Muori!” almost animal in their furious passion followed by her sober forgiveness of Scarpia a few bars later. The musical interactions between her and Phillip Rhodes’ Scarpia were consistently involving, a lot of intensity being created by voice alone even as the characters remained physically still and self-possessed. In “Vissi d’arte”, one truly believed in Tosca’s plight, so poignant was the expression. This was staged effectively, with Scarpia basically frozen static, allowing Borlan to create an internalised moment rather than making the aria seem like a breaking of tension in the otherwise dramatic musical sequence.

Simon O'Neill (Cavaradossi) © Neil Mackenzie
Simon O'Neill (Cavaradossi)
© Neil Mackenzie
By all rights, after years of service in the heaviest of Wagner roles, O’Neill should be ill-matched for the role of Cavaradossi, but he proved all assumptions wrong with his at turns heroic and sensitive interpretation. It was this sensitivity that impressed the most, culminating in a flexible and liquid account of the famous “E lucevan le stelle” characterized with some truly fine gradation of dynamics, virtues that continued throughout the following duet. Bringing out the poetic side of the character made an ideal contrast with the heroics of Cavaradossi the revolutionary, O’Neill trumpeting out elongated A flats in the "Vittoria" scene in the most thrilling fashion. All in all, this was actually the finest singing I’ve heard from O’Neill, even including his estimable Wagner. He is not the most active stage presence, but sincerity shone through at all times, suitable for this relatively uncomplicated character.

It would have been easy for Rhodes’ Scarpia to be overshadowed by all this Wagnerian-scale singing from the romantic leads but he more than held his own through a combination of rich baritonal vocalism and a sense of barely restrained violence. His rather elegant stage deportment matches well with his suavity of tone, making Scarpia legitimately attractive in his dealings with Tosca. This elegance makes his sudden ferocious outbursts of anger, both vocal and physical, all the more shocking – a much more interesting portrayal than your usual venal tyrant. His voice also has enough richness to make himself the centre of the busy Te Deum scene, even with the hefty dose of incense permeating out from the thuribles.  James Clayton was a surprisingly big-voiced Angelotti and the other smaller parts acquitted themselves well, as did the vibrant Freemasons Opera Chorus in the aforementioned Te Deum.

Act III © Neil Mackenzie
Act III
© Neil Mackenzie

Stuart Maunder’s production updates the action to the mid-20th century without changing or interfering with the basic plot in any significant way, seeming to trust his singers' instincts in ticking the necessary dramatic boxes (which they largely did). Sets, too, were unfussy and effective. Even on the large ASB Theatre stage, the high brown panels gave Scarpia's office of the second act a crucially claustrophobic feel and the prison camp setting of the last act provided Tosca with a suitable guard tower from which to make her (very high) suicidal leap.

What really made the evening compelling was the spellbinding musical direction of Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg. Here is a musician who completely understands Puccini’s music; when to move forward to avoid any sentimentality-filled wallowing and when to pull back to create a mesmeric moment. He created plenty of tension to go with that on stage, but also delivered superbly controlled rubato. Line was always paramount, making each new musical episode seem logically born out of the previous. The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra followed their conductor's lead with maximum flexibility. Special attention should be called to the gloriously soaring string tone doubling the voices in the love duet and the plaintive wind solos so atmospheric in the opening of the last act. It is fantastic to hear the orchestra as an equal dramatic player in its own right, here matching the stellar contributions of those on stage.

****1