I love Wellington audiences. They are so exuberantly enthusiastic, and yet so well behaved. We went to the magical World of Wearable Art (WOW) in the weekend, and the NZ Opera production of Puccini's famous opera, TOSCA, last night.
For both performances, the house was absolutely packed. Not a single empty seat. Throughout each show, the audience was raptly quiet, with just the occasional mass intake of breath or muted laughter to break the silence. But then, when it was appropriate, the spectators went mad -- clapping, shouting, exuberant stamping of feet.
The St James Theatre, where Tosca was presented, does not have a wide or deep stage -- though the upperworks are very high. The designer took full advantage of this, with soaring scenery, many vertical panels, and a minimum of clutter on the floor. In the first and third acts platforms were erected, the first with the artist's easel and the almost complete painting of a blonde, blue-eyed Madonna, and the last with a fenced outer wall, like the perimeter of some infamous war prisoner camp. And, to suit, the time the opera was set in was brought up to the mid-twentieth century, complete with menacing Mafia henchmen.
Irish scientist-turned-diva Orla Boylen was Tosca, while New Zealand tenor Simon O'Neill was Mario Caveradossi. Both have heavenly voices, which soared effortlessly over the unrelentingly brilliant sound produced by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. They are both in their forties, with a certain amount of middle-age spread, but they used this to great effect, to give an endearing impression of a mature couple who are absolutely devoted to each other -- an image that the audience took to their hearts. If anyone ever wanted a happy ending, it was this Wellington crowd.
But of course romance was foiled by the sadistic Scarpia, the role held by New Zealand baritone Phillip Rhodes, who was perfect in voice, acting, and appearance. He played the ultimate preying Lothario, and has the dark good looks to suit, along with the lingering bedroom eyes.
The final scene, always a difficult one, was handled superbly. The audience laughed when Tosca instructed Mario to fall carefully when he was shot -- "You don't have the stage experience that I do" -- and gasped with horror when the shot turned out to be real.
Personally, I was very pleased not to hear a scream and a thud after Tosca leapt from the prison wall. Meaning that Orla Boylan lives to play yet another brilliant soprano role.
And, as I said, the applause was delirious.
And as for WOW. Anyone who has the chance to watch the non-stop, scintillating spectacle that this show offers, and turns it down, hasn't lived. Believe me, it is not just a parade of amazing costumes. It's an Experience.