Love, jealousy, and more than a little stabbing: NZ Opera’s Tosca

Tonight I had the delight of watching Tosca, performed by New Zealand Opera. In the spirit of joy and discovery, I brought along my mother, who was lucky enough to have this be her maiden voyage to Puccini’s works. Indeed, I would have her begin her experience with no other. Love and jealousy, deceit and more than a little stabbing, Tosca embodies everything I love about French drama and Italian opera.

Tosca is originally set in Italy in the early 1800s (in this performance, still in Italy, but pushed forward to the stylish 1950s). It focuses on the diva Tosca, her lover, Cavaradossi, who is accused of helping a prisoner escape, and the devious Scarpia, the Chief of Police, who desires Tosca and sees an opportunity in her desperation when her lover is arrested. The more modern setting was very tasteful, the ominous mafia undertones fitting almost too well with the political pressure within Italy, certainly connecting the audience more than Italy’s situation in Napoleonic times.

Favourite character? Scarpia, of course. His leitmotif looms ominously throughout, providing dread from the moment the curtain rises. Teddy Tahu Rhodes provided a brilliantly full sound, and stole the show for me. His embodiment of Scarpia continually drew my eye back to him, commanding and leaving others in his shadow (at times, literally, due to clever stagecraft).

Favourite song? Lucevan Le Stelle. I sniffled my way through it, and even my mother had her eyes prick with tears in the heartfelt rendition by Simon O’Neill as Cavaradossi. His vocal performance of this piece was especially superb, the pauses speaking as much as his smooth and soaring phrases. You can have a taster of this in O’Neill’s 2015 performance in the video below.

Favourite moment? Spoiler alert: Tosca’s dramatic end. Nothing says defiance like jumping off a prison tower, crying ‘See you in hell, sucker’ (*ahem, not an exact translation). Orla Boylan provided a Tosca that was funny, believable and heart-breaking, with a voice and costume selection that delighted my diva-prone heart.

Kudos, of course, to the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, whose accompaniment outshone every production of Tosca I have watched. The mark of an excellent supporting orchestra is its seamless interactions with the performers, heightening the emotion and not overwhelming, which the CSO accomplished. The Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus featured as well, supporting with a variety of characters, and a fair few familiar faces to the Christchurch musical theatre scene.

All in all, a brilliant night. It definitely makes me want to go and reread my copy of Scarpia by Piers Paul Read, which provides the story from the perspective of the notorious Baron.

As someone who loves opera, I would highly recommend the experience. The show runs from 8 to 16 March.

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