John Bell’s production of Tosca has made regular appearances on the Opera Australia schedule since it debuted in 2013. Updating the action from 1800 to 1943, Bell sets the opera amidst the Nazi occupation of Rome in a dramatic, beautifully designed (by Michael Scott-Mitchell) staging that draws on his years of experience in the theatre. From the monumental, marble-lined cathedral of Act I to the concrete and barbed-wire prison of the finale to many fine details in the acting, it’s a production that keeps the audience hooked – and in this revival, under director Matthew Barclay, it retains its impact some eight years on.

Diego Torre and Carmen GiannattasioDiego Torre and Carmen Giannattasio in Opera Australia’s Tosca. Photo © Prudence Upton

While the use of Nazi symbolism on stage might sit uncomfortably with some viewers, particularly given the growing threat of far-right extremism in Australia and around the world, in Bell’s hands it’s more than just dramatic wallpaper – he crafts a psychologically astute narrative that highlights the personal drama, compromise and terror of living under such a seedy, tyrannical regime.

The setting raises the emotional and dramatic stakes of an opera famously dubbed a “shabby little shocker”. Swastikas and Nazi salutes give the applause that follows the hair-raising Te Deum at the end of the first act (the Opera Australia Chorus and Children’s Chorus in brilliant form on opening night) a queasy undercurrent, the audience now complicit along with the church, police, civilians and children who gather under the flags on stage. It’s a powerful moment, and one that foreshadows the corruption and violence of the second act.

Diego Torre and Carmen GiannattasioDiego Torre and Carmen Giannattasio in Opera Australia’s Tosca. Photo © Prudence Upton

At the centre of the maelstrom is Tosca, sung here by Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio in her Opera Australia debut, whose lover Cavaradossi is tortured (under the command of police chief Scarpia, who has his eyes on Tosca) for aiding an escaped political prisoner. Giannattasio made her role debut as Tosca with San Francisco Opera in 2018 to great acclaim, and she brings a beautifully judged sense of drama to the role – spirited in the opening act as she banters with Cavaradossi, then fire and steel in the second as she navigates the terrible dilemmas she’s forced to face. She charts this transformation in her voice, her soprano light and playful early on, gaining searing power and compelling depth as the opera progresses. Her Vissi d’arte begins almost as a sob before it unfurls into a soaring, heart-breaking cry.

Diego Torre stars alongside her as the painter Cavaradossi, in a role now very familiar to the Australian tenor. He brings a charming warmth – almost a bashfulness – to the part, an endearing quality that adds nuance to the character and sharpens the impact of the tragedy to come. His is a powerful instrument, bright, agile and penetrating, with an arresting clarity that has made him a favourite of Australian audiences. On opening night, however, he seemed to be holding back in the upper register (a single, soft cough the only other sign he might be experiencing vocal difficulties) and while the build-up of his third-act aria, E lucevan le stele, promised a heart-rending climax, the result was more restrained. That didn’t stop him soaring alongside Giannattasio in their a cappella duet moments later, however, and he nonetheless gave a captivating performance across the night.

Carmen Giannattasio and Marco Vratogna in Opera Australia’s Tosca. Photo © Prudence Upton

Italian baritone Marco Vratogna returns as Scarpia, playing the role with a single-minded intensity and arrogance that has his henchmen rolling their eyes. He is a robust vocal presence, giving a menacing, unrelenting performance.

A veteran of the 2013 production, David Parkin is a welcome presence as the escaped prisoner Angelotti, while Luke Gabbedy reprises his role – performed in many revivals now – as the comic Sacristan. Graeme Macfarlane as Spoletta, Alexander Hargreaves as Sciarrone and Anthony Mackay as the Gaoler round out a strong supporting cast, while special mention must go to the clean, affecting o de’ sospiri of Aidan Carey’s Shepherd Boy in Act III.

Carmen Giannattasio and Diego Torre in Opera Australia’s Tosca. Photo © Prudence Upton

Italian maestro Andrea Battistoni returns to lead the Opera Australia Orchestra in a lively reading that brings out Puccini’s characters in vivid details, from the dark brass of the opening ‘Scarpia’ chords to the horns and ominous bells in Act III. Philip Green, Torre’s co-star on clarinet in E lucevan le stele, delivers a haunting, fluid solo from the pit.

There were a few small misfires on opening night, tiny by themselves but accumulating to leach some of the drama from the performance – Tosca’s shawl never failed to slither its way to the floor, regardless of which surface it was placed on, while the doors hampered our heroine’s exit at the end of the second act. A premature gunshot had the audience chuckling in what should be one of the tensest moments in the opera. However, this is a thrilling production and with some great singing it’s a pleasure for opera-goers familiar with Bell’s production and a must-see for those who haven’t experienced it before.

Opera Australia’s Tosca is at the Sydney Opera House until 13 March


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