There's almost as much drama offstage as on in this fascinating insight into the staging of an opera at Sydney's famed Opera House. Even those who aren't opera lovers will likely find "Tosca: A Tale of Love and Torture" riveting stuff. Handsomely produced behind-the-scenes document should prove a top-rater on quality TV networks.

There’s almost as much drama offstage as on in this fascinating insight into the staging of an opera at Sydney’s famed Opera House. Even those who aren’t opera lovers will likely find “Tosca: A Tale of Love and Torture” riveting stuff. Handsomely produced behind-the-scenes document should prove a top-rater on quality TV networks. A long life on video is also indicated, as well as beaucoup festival bookings.

The film crew was given seemingly unlimited access to the artists, not only unflinchingly filming the ups and downs of the rehearsals but also visiting some of the principals in their homes and outside the confines of the theater. A sequence in which the camera records a tremendous clash of egos is powerfully stuff.

At the outset, titles advise that whenever Puccini’s tragic “Tosca” is staged by Opera Australia, it’s a sure-fire box office winner. In 1999, a new production, in Italian, is arranged to star diva Joan Carden, who has played Tosca many times; newcomer Greg Tomlinson, a tenor who has never sung the role of hero Mario Cavaradossi before; and Ian Vayne, who has performed the villainous Baron Scarpia part only in German.

But budgets have been tightened in recent years, and only three weeks has been allowed for rehearsal at the opera company’s inner-city headquarters. Supervised by Scottish conductor Roderick Brydon and rehearsal director Cathy Dadd (a very Aussie, down-to-earth character) and under the watchful eye of Italian coach Renato Fresia, the rehearsals begin under great pressure.

Viewed from this backstage perspective, and without makeup, the age difference between Carden, who is only too aware that her career is coming to an end, and her young co-stars is even more pronounced. Evident, too, is the simple lack of enough time to get it all together; this will definitely be an under-rehearsed production.

Tensions among members of the company come to a head at the piano dress rehearsal in the Opera House. Called to the stage from her dressing room, Carden finds herself in an elevator with a stagehand heading down to the basement instead of up to the stage; she misses her cue, triggering an explosion of pent-up frustration from her collaborators. When Brydon wants the theater cleared of observers and refuses to make an exception for an associate of Carden’s, the diva stalks angrily from the stage. It’s a wonderfully spontaneous moment of high drama.

One of the most interesting revelations for the non-aficionado is that the ebullient Dadd, who works tirelessly as director in the early stages, is not allowed, apparently by tradition, to assume this role once the company reaches the point of dress rehearsal; then conductor Brydon takes over, doubling as director. It certainly seems a strange way to handle the staging of a large-scale opera.

Documaker Trevor Graham and his team have seized every opportunity afforded them to give the viewer an intimate view of the proceedings. Camerawork and sound recording are first class, with solid work, too, from editor Denise Haslem , who has assembled a fast-moving drama from what was presumably a mountain of material. A 55-minute TV version is also available.

Tosca: A Tale of Love and Torture

Australia

Production

A Film Australia presentation in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (International sales: Film Australia, Sydney.) Produced by Patricia Lovell. Executive producer, Mark Hamlyn. Directed by Trevor Graham. Screenplay, Graham, Rosemary Hesp.

Crew

Camera (color), John Witteron; second camera, Robert Humphries; editor, Denise Haslem; music, Giacomo Puccini; sound, Sam Petty, Bronwyn Murphy; line producer, Hesp; associate producer, William Sheehan. Reviewed at Sydney Film Festival, June 17, 2000. Running time: 86 MIN.

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