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A ground-breaking Tosca

Lucio Gallo as Scarpia, in the famous Te Deum scene at the end of Act 1, accompanied by the Aurora Opera Chorus.

Lucio Gallo as Scarpia, in the famous Te Deum scene at the end of Act 1, accompanied by the Aurora Opera Chorus.

The Aurora Opera House wanted to celebrate its 50th anniversary very much alla grande and succeeded in putting on one of the most, if not the most, lavish Toscas I have seen anywhere in the past 63 years.

The peak in pomp and splendour was the Act I Te Deum finale. The dazzling mis-en scène and the sweep of the music underlining Scarpia’s confirmation of evil intent, provoked such a thunderous ovation that the scene was encored. 

For many years now in most opera houses, audience calls for an encore have been discouraged and rarely conceded.

In Malta, it was fairly common up to the 1950s/early 60s but these only linger in the memories of the more seasoned opera buffs. I cannot say I did not enjoy a second hearing of this finale.

If anything one could also enjoy what was the climactic high point of Luke Azzopardi’s brilliant costume design.

Here, the ground-breaking aspect of this production was the collaboration with a leading  Maltese fashion house, Camilleri Paris Mode. It was a combination of aural and visual delight.

Long ago I read somewhere that Puccini’s Tosca could have easily been called ‘Scarpia’. The clashing opening chords of the opera are Scarpia’s leitmotif: harsh and sinister, they are heard again as Mario provides a quick – but accurate – description of the man’s despicable character.

They are heard yet again when he makes his first entry in church, inter-rupting the over-hasty, premature  celebration of Napoleon’s supposed defeat at Marengo.

Scarpia dominates the whole opera.  The great, passionate love affair tinged with Tosca’s jealousy of Mario is also a dominant theme, but Scarpia still overshadows everything and everybody. 

One of the most, if not the most, lavish Toscas I have seen anywhere in the past 63 years

Even in death, he still pulls the strings and the lovers are doomed to join him wherever one thinks everybody deserve to end up.

In baritone Lucio Gallo there was a Scarpia on topmost form, in any way one looked at him. His sinister elegance, cold cruelty, fake charming manners and relentless determination to hunt down his prey, require a very talented singer and one with great class: this was Gallo’s unforgettable Scarpia.

Tosca in mustard? Amarilli Nizza gives an emotional rendition of Vissi d'arte, dressed in what has become Luke Azzopardi’s signature frock.Tosca in mustard? Amarilli Nizza gives an emotional rendition of Vissi d'arte, dressed in what has become Luke Azzopardi’s signature frock.

Amarilli Nizza in the title role is indeed a very fine and convincing actress. Her voice at times verged on the strident until it did warm up and sound better, more or less from midway during the long love duet in Act I. Her long and exhausting scene with Scarpia in Act II highlighted her tragic helplessness and his dominant and all-powerful cruelty.

They both carried off this very well. Nizza’s great moment was in Vissi d’arte, in which she was utterly convincing, giving a very heartfelt rendition. Yet it was one which was never overdone and not at all bereft of a tragic dignity. Tosca’s final dealing with Scarpia was the most ferocious I have ever seen.

Usually, one stab hits its target and the man dies in two or three minutes. However, this Tosca stabbed him in the upper chest, then his back and a few more times, driving in the knife with almost all her weight!

Tenor Stefano La Colla’s Mario Cavaradossi was vocally unremarkable at first. His Recondita armonia dragged a bit and his top reaches were not very polished but he warmed up to a creditable level during the love duet.  He also sailed through the very exacting futile victory outburst in Act II. He, too, is a good actor and his E lucevan le stelle in Act 3 was very, very touching.

The secondary role of Angelotti was capably taken by bass Frano Lufi who in Act 3 Also doubled as the Gaoler. Matteo Peirone as the Sacristan provided the only light comical relief in this dark tragedy.

Doing well as Scarpia’s jackals were tenor Roberto Jachini Virgili as Spoletta and baritone Joseph Lia as Sciarrone, while some of the police thugs needed to look a little more sinister for better effect. 

I found Mattia Grech (the barely audible Shepherd Boy) rather oddly doubling as the gaoler’s dogsbody, when this boy is usually heard off-stage.

Cavaradossi (Stefano La Colla) is joined by Tosca (Amarilli Nizza) who informs him that Scarpia is dead and that he is to go through the supposedly mock shoot-out before they can escape with their safe conduct.Cavaradossi (Stefano La Colla) is joined by Tosca (Amarilli Nizza) who informs him that Scarpia is dead and that he is to go through the supposedly mock shoot-out before they can escape with their safe conduct.

An unusually grim touch was provided by the corpses of two other victims of Scarpia’s, carted off-stage before Mario’s execution.

The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra was directed with the usual verve, energy and sensitivity of which Colin Attard is capable.

He was also chorus master of the Aurora Opera Chorus. A great team of hard-working persons were behind this production, among whom were set designer Andrew Borg Wirth, set artist Paul Falzon and lights designer Donald Camilleri.

There is also a number of praiseworthy volunteers to whom involvement in such productions is a labour of love and enthusiasm, and of course the many sponsors.

Opera in Gozo would be impossible to stage without all of them and the Maltese Islands would be much the poorer for that.

This production was dedicated to Joseph Abela, for 35 years the Aurora’s Financial Officer and who died earlier this year aged 71.

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