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SCENE IT: Opulent TOSCA revels in magnificent melodrama

Barbara Loots

 

Calling Puccini’s TOSCA simply powerful, and it is, feels like a disservice to the nuances that play within that description. Cape Town Opera’s staging of TOSCA at the Artscape Opera House is nothing short of spectacular. This favourite of Puccini, even though wrought with tragedy, still has the clout to captivate the mind and reverberate through the soul.

An Italian opera in three acts, with music by Gaicomo Puccini and libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, it is based on La Tocsa a French play by Victorien Sardou. Since the opera was first performed in 1900, the world has been fascinated by this creation of Puccini, to such an extent that it is the only opera to make an appearance in the James Bond saga, as Bond (Daniel Craig) finds himself at a performance of TOSCA in Austria in the Quantam of Solace (2008).


TOSCA has become that opera many know of even if they haven’t seen it.


Generally stated to be about love, lust and betrayal, it is also about murder, attempted rape, torture, revenge and suicide. It is then no surprise that it has over the years been described as an extremely melodramatic opera. Wearing that melodrama badge proudly (to the dismay of some opera critics over the years), TOSCA has the attention and adoration of the public, and for good reason, as it is everything that an opera should be: opulent and over the top dramatic. And we love it!


Although Puccini, Giacosa and Illica were very inventive in their adaption of Sardou’s spoken play, amplifying the drama but cutting it down to focus on three key characters, Sardou kept a tight rein on the manner in which his original vision was turned into an operatic staging.


Set in the complex political climate of the 1800s Kingdom of Naples, TOSCA plays into the love and lust that fuels the personal and political power struggles at play between its three main characters: Floria Tosca (a fiery singer with a jealous streak), Mario Carvadossi (a painter with the soul of a political activist and Tosca’s fated lover), and Barone Scrapia (Rome’s Chief of Police, a cruel Sicilian who will stop at nothing to have Tosca). Their tumultuous tale unfolds through three scenes set inside the Church of Sant’Andrea (Act 1), in Scarpia’s apartment within the Palazzo Farnese (Act II) and the upper parts of the Castle Sant’Angelo early in the morning (Act III).


TOSCA starts off on a fairly light-hearted note as the opera uses Floria’s jealous nature to add an element of comedy to the first interactions of the lovers in the Cathedral where Cavaradossi is seen working on a depiction of Maria Magdalena. From there the story turns gradually darker until the audience realises the lovers have been doomed and Tosca takes her own life to join her executed love Cavaradossi and to stand in judgment before God alongside Scarpia (whom she killed in response to the sexual assault she suffered at his groping hands).


Interestingly, the final death scene that Puccini’s TOSCA ended up with is one approved by Sardou but not the original vision of Giacosa and Illica. Giacosa and Illica envisioned a scene of Tosca going mad at the realisation that Cavaradossi was executed for real, and not simply as a fake exhibition as she was led to believe. Sardou, however, did not approve of that change to his play’s ending and insisted that Puccini retain Tosca’s suicide scene where she is supposed to fling herself off the parapet to her death.


With the Cape Town Opera staging of TOSCA, director Magdalene Minnaar has taken subtle liberties with Sardou's vision, keeping within the realms of suicide but playing with the method a bit: She has done so with great vision, as it remains utterly tragic and powerfully executed if one considers the manner of Cavardossi’s demise and Tosca’s consistently defiant portrayal.


This staging of TOSCA is packed with talent: Audiences are left entranced by soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza as the passionate Floria Tosca (in her first production with Cape Town Opera since being appointed House Soloist last year), starring opposite the remarkable tenor Lukhanyo Moyake as Cavaradossi and the always striking baritone Conroy Scott as the malicious Scarpia. These three together sing passion, persecution and power into being as they put fire in the drama that captivates as the tension between them leads to ultimate tragedy. Their performances are supported by Bongani Khubeka, Lonwabi Mose, Van Wyk Venter and Lwazi Dlamini.


With this TOSCA, the Cape Town Opera has bravely not restrained the attempted rape and torture scenes, as they confront the audience with the full scope of the emotions as experienced by the characters.

Although the staging itself is large-scale and opulent, the death scenes are minimalistic in comparison, allowing the story to lean into the intimacy and despair of these moments without cluttering it with unnecessary elements.

This current production is made up of many memorable moments, but the Cathedral scene that sees a 28-member children’s chorus (overseen by Antionette Huyssen) and the Cape Town Opera Chorus (directed by Marvin Kernelle) fill the space with their voices is magnificent. The added element of incense wafting through the opera house at that moment, makes you feel part of the religious ritual being depicted onstage. For a moment, TOSCA almost becomes a tactile experience.


Conductor Maestro Björn Bantock and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra do more than justice to Puccini’s vision, with a clear understanding of the musical motifs at play when considering the different nuances that are so crucial to the tale being sung by the main characters.


In this Cape Town Opera presented TOSCA, all the creative elements come together with unified purpose as a singular form of beautiful art, as the music and voices on display are perfectly amplified with set and costume design by MarithaVisagie and Leopold Senekal, movement direction by Fiona du Plooy, and lighting design by Oliver Hauser.


The Cape Town Opera presented staging of TOSCA is on at the Artscape Opera House until 17 September 2023. Tickets are available for booking online through Computicket.

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