q Opera Review: Tosca - When In Rome, Or Drama To Scale - Bruce Dennill

Opera Review: Tosca – When In Rome, Or Drama To Scale

July 23, 2023

 

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Cape Town Opera: Tosca / Directed by Magdalene Minnaar / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg

 

There are not too many full-scale operas – including, as this production does, a full orchestra – staged in Johannesburg, and there is often a debate about the art form’s ongoing validity (the well-worn argument about elitism, yes, but also about presenting work sung in Italian and focusing on classical European history and themes in South Africa, a country still striving to shed colonial influences in many ways). But Cape Town Opera’s Tosca is a production that removes the needs for such angst by presenting the opera in a way that underlines why it remains entertaining and powerful 123 years after its creation.

The set, costumes, lighting and scale all make an immediate and lasting impression. Puccini’s score is, for the opera outsider, not terribly recognisable – there is no Nessun Dorma, no Largo al Factotum, no Queen of the Night – but in supporting the drama of the settings and the action that unfolds, it powerfully conveys mood and motion, moving the story forward. Above the stage, clear surtitles proclaim the English translations of the Italian lyrics, making what is being discussed in song easy to understand. All of this visual and aural stimulation makes sitting in the auditorium exciting, even before the cast have begun to sing.

The Mandela at Joburg Theatre is a good-sized room, and the formidable swell of Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit means the singers face a pleasing professional challenge in reaching the back rows with their projection. Everyone manages well enough, but the three leads who enjoy the most stage time – Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Tosca, Lukhanyo Moyake as Cavaradossi and Conroy Scott as Scarpia – have, probably not coincidentally, the most impressive vocals. With Floria Tosca, the character, being a diva in the plot, Mngxekeza is invited to flaunt both skills and sass and does so memorably. Moyake provides arguably the technical high point of the entire piece when, seated and awkwardly reclining (his character is badly injured at the time), he manages a phrase that viscerally punches into every corner of the room, making audience members audibly gasp. And Scott’s Scarpia is a particularly malevolent individual, a villain without the sort of charm that sometimes makes bad guys into misled unfortunates.

Indeed, the story as a whole pulls no punches, and neither does this production, with a couple of scenes being graphic enough to cause a momentary clenching of the stomach as you watch.

As a standalone advert for opera, this Tosca does a fantastic job of showcasing the basic building blocks of an art form that has endured for centuries for reasons that haven’t always been clear to mainstream entertainment audiences. It’s far more than that too – beautifully presented and directed and passionately performed. A high standard, well met.

 

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