Opera Australia Karah Son as Tosca and cast in Tosca at Margaret Court Arena photo by Jeff BusbyThe Australian Open tennis tournament usually keeps the Margaret Court Arena in the spotlight, but Opera Australia (OA) is giving it a workout for six performances of Puccini’s three-act thriller, Tosca. And it turns out opera in the arena isn’t such a bad idea.

The stylish 7,500 seat capacity venue has been trimmed down to a little over 3,000 with a raised stage and proscenium built at the net-line, including seating on the southern end of the court. 

A lot of effort has gone into transforming the venue and decking out the public concourse with OA signatures, making great first impressions – an important factor considering the temporary but excruciatingly long wait until the State Theatre reopens post-renovation. It does however, feel like a band-aid solution as opera is bleeding from Melbourne’s oft-lauded cultural capital status. 

Of course, it could only work with one of the most performed operas today. Tosca is up there and it certainly has much to offer, selling depictions of violence, sexual violence against women, murder, suicide – all of which have long been part of theatrical history – and the death of all three leads amongst some of Puccini’s most ravishing music. 

But while this imported production from UK’s Opera North directed by Edward Dick has much to offer as well, it wasn’t designed for a stadium setting and you see that the moment the curtain rises to reveal a morsel of expectations for something bigger.

A large but not large enough centrally placed shallow dome and its oculus suspended and tilted above the stage is the defining feature of Tom Scutt’s set design, alluding to the first of Tosca‘s three distinctive Roman settings, Act 1’s church of Sant’Andrea. 

Opera Australia Diego Torre as Cavaradossi and Karah Son as Tosca in Tosca at Margaret Court Arena photo by Jeff BusbyBelow this symbolic gesture, an arc of lighting columns create a rear wall. In front of them, banks of votive candle stands complete the picture – all set for the arrival of the escaped political prisoner, Angelotti (David Parkin), introductions to fresco painter Cavaradossi (Diego Torre), amusingly jealous opera diva Floria Tosca’s (Karah Son) urgency to see her lover Cavaradossi and the villainous, scheming chief of police, Scarpia (Robert Hayward), whose suspicions of Cavaradossi’s involvement and lust for Tosca fuel the tragedy.

Despite its original setting during French Napoleonic occupation in 1801, the work is comfortably adapted to and resonates strongly through Dick’s stylised contemporary staging with the assistance of Fotini Dimou’s individualised costumes. But fighting against this are some elements of direction that miss opportunities to capture the ‘verismo’ Puccini strived for.

In Act 2 – in what is a sharp and chic bedroom interior with a mad amount of entrance and exit points – Tosca is forced by Scarpia to watch in horror her lover being tortured by his thugs on a laptop. It seems odd considering he’s in the next room.  

Soon after, Son’s achingly heartfelt and superbly sculptured rendition of opera’s famous aria, Vissi d’arte, is given a forced showstopper display, entirely sung to the audience when Tosca is clearly making a desperate plea to Scarpia who is almost out of sight behind the bed head. Perplexingly, a figure enters to light the votives.

And Act 1’s grand opera moment when the Te Deum should boom with extraordinary energy feels undone by a stage picture looking scant, stiff and focussed on what looked like a Scarpia and bling-loving family snapshot – he, the darkest character under lighting designer Lee Curran’s brightest spotlight when much of the production is either murkily lit or suddenly blasted by amber light.

The bones are there but the dizzying cost of a last row seat demands that a director takes that perspective seriously. It needed a strong cast and that is ticked off splendidly.

Son’s Tosca leans towards overly melodramatic tendencies but she is firmly rooted to the diva’s heart and punishing trajectory as Tosca is catapulted into the unthinkable. Importantly, Son is completely at one with the music. It emanates with unforced natural beauty and expression and sits proudly with her other Puccinian conquests. 

Hayward christened the role of Scarpia in the production’s 2018 premiere and brings a distasteful suavity to the predatory villain. Less terrifying than traditionally portrayed. Hayward rather aligns his character with the archetypal entitled power monger modern eyes don’t miss. And his dashing, smooth and persuasive baritone fits like a glove. 

Opera Australia Diego Torre as Cavaradossi in Tosca at Margaret Court Arena photo by Jeff BusbyTorre is the wow-factor, totally convincing as both passionate lover – sharing a touching unison with Son – and courageous hostage in the face of terror. A long-standing asset in the OA catalogue, Torre’s honest, eloquent and invigoratingly charged Pavarotti-esque, Italianate tenor is dream listening and as clear as a bell. And as Cavaradossi faces death in the Act 3 tenor showpiece, E lucevan le stelle, Torre let go a jewel of unmissable, searing poignancy.

As escapee Angelotti, Parkin provides an explosive start to the night, Andrew Moran is delightfully tuned to the Sacristan’s dubious and fussy nature and young Hugh Ling opens Act 3 with tender and translucent threads as the Shepherd Boy.

It wasn’t initially clear where the superbly playing Orchestra Victoria (OV) was hiding but Opera North music director Garry Walker conducted the score with pleasing sensitivity and thrust. 

Given the venue, there are no surprises with miking. Kudos to sound designer Jim Atkins for the fresh, natural sound achieved with vocals. On the other hand, OV’s sound relay came across noticeably tinny on Friday’s opening night. 

OA must be learning much from this experience in Melbourne, something that could gather momentum in the State Theatre’s absence. Already, the company decorates Sydney Harbour annually with opera catering for large audiences in “major event” style that attracts visitors and many first-timers. Not to be considered a replacement of or competitor with already thinning scheduling, the addition of arena opera certainly has some potential. 

Margaret Court Arena – Melbourne Park, Olympic Boulevard, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 24 May 2024
Season continues to 30 May 2024
Information and Bookings:

Opera Australia will present Tosca in the Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House from 25 June – 16 August 2024. For more information, visit: for details.

Images: Karah Son as Tosca and cast in Tosca at Margaret Court Arena – photo by Jeff Busby | Diego Torre as Cavaradossi and Karah Son as Tosca in Tosca at Margaret Court Arena – photo by Jeff Busby | Diego Torre as Cavaradossi in Tosca at Margaret Court Arena – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Paul Selar