One of the jewels in the Opera Australia repertoire, along with Elijah Moshinsky’s La Traviata, Gale Edwards’ La Boheme, and Graeme Murphy’s The Merry Widow, is John Bell’s Tosca, a perfect blending of direction and design which actually enhances the composers intention’s by making them accessible and relevant to contemporary audiences.
For this version of Tosca, Bell has moved the action from the 1800’s to Fascist Rome during the German occupation in 1943. It’s a period that is familiar to most of the audience either from personal experience or from media.
Each of the three acts is set in a location that still exists today, including a wondrous reproduction by Michael Scott-Mitchell of the spectacular Sant’Andrea della Valle Church in which the first scene takes place. Bell provides each act with a stunning visual equivalent for each of Puccini’s masterful musical finales.
For the first act it is the unfurling of the red swastika flags by Scarpia’s storm troopers during the ravishingly sung Te Deum when the assembled congregation is cowered into raising their arms in the Nazi salute rather than making the customary sign of the cross.
The second act ends with Tosca defiantly covering Scarpia’s body with a similar swastika flag before leaving through the huge doors to carry out her plan to rescue her lover, Cavaradossi, which she negotiated with Scarpia before stabbing him to death.
Tosca’s own final act death scene which brings the opera to its conclusion is as shocking as it is inevitable, leaving the audience stunned into silence as the final curtain descends.
Within this clever staging Bell has left room for each singer to bring individual characterisations to their roles, and one of the many pleasures of this production is experiencing how each singer seizes this opportunity.
Since making her role debut in Tosca for San Francisco Opera, Carmen Giannattasio has quickly established herself as a leading interpreter of the role, admired as much for her ability to emerge herself in her interpretation as for her lustrous soprano.
With her finely nuanced performance for her Australian debut in the Sydney Opera House, Giannattasio provided a compelling demonstration as to why this is so. She is warm, almost playful in the first act as she insists that Cavaradossi change his painting to ease her suspicions that he may be having an affair, despite his protests to the contrary.
In sharp contrast during the second act after discovering the real reason behind Scarpia’s invitation, she engages in fiery exchanges with him, demanding he stop the torture of Cavaradossi, before collapsing in devastation at the realisation that she has unwittingly betrayed of her lover, leading into the famous Vissi de Arte (I lived for Art) which she commenced slumped on the floor, almost prostrate in grief.
As the aria progressed she rose slowly, meticulously shaping each phrase. The audience held its breath throughout this aria until, at the climax, it could hold back no longer demonstrating its approval with loud cheers and sustained applause.
Repeating his acclaimed 2018 Opera Australia performance as Scarpia, baritone Marco Vratogna matched Giannattasio in intensity every step of the way. From the moment he enters at the end of the first act, Vratogna oozes corruption, dominating the stage with his swarthy good looks, commanding baritone and arrogant swagger.
Neatly contrasting the venal bombast of Vrotogna, but perfectly complimenting him vocally, tenor Diego Torre as Tosca’s lover, the artist, Cavaradossi, completes a trio of extraordinary singer/actors.
Torre imbues his artist with a gentleness and concern, not only for Tosca, but also for Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner and brother of his patron, Marchesa Attavanti. His rendition of the third act letter song, And the Stars Shone was particularly memorable.
Surrounding these three principal artists, adding lustre to the production, David Parkin impressed with his powerful baritone as the escapee, Angelotti, Graeme Macfarlane and Alexander Hargreaves offered thoughtful supportive characterisations as Scarpia’s henchmen, Spoletta and Sciarrone, and Luke Gabbedy even managed to inject a little humour with his not-too-fussy Sacristan.
Drawing every ounce of drama and emotion from Puccini’s magnificent score, The Australian Opera Orchestra and Chorus, under the energetic conducting of Andrea Battistoni, garnered further laurels for their superb performance marking this production a “must see” whether or not you’ve seen it before.
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Monday 22 February 2021
Season continues to 13 March 2021
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: Marco Vratogna as Scarpia and The Opera Australia Chorus in Opera Australia’s 2021 production of Tosca at the Sydney Opera House – photo by Prudence Upton
Review: Bill Stephens OAM