Arts Centre, Melbourne (Opera Australia)


The combination of Puccini’s most dramatic opera and Australia’s pre-eminent Shakepearean director, not to mention a world-class line-up of singers, has resulted in an utterly superb Tosca in this Opera Australia production in Melbourne.

Director John Bell has updated the story to Rome in the 1940s, with Scarpia an SS officer after the Nazi take-over of Rome in World War II. For those familiar with traditional productions, much of Bell’s approach is shocking. For example, the famous ‘Te Deum’ that ends Act 1 is more a Nazi victory march than a liturgical ceremony, with the ghastly sight of swastikas as banners and the children’s choir as Hitler Youth plus a clear message of church complicity. In the pre-dawn moments of Act 3, Jews are rounded up and sent off to concentration camp.

The production seethes with dark undercurrents which break out into sudden acts of violence. Even the scuffle of children as they enter the church in Act 1 becomes a vicious fist-fight between two of the lads (and full marks to fight choreographer Nigel Poulton). Assistant director Roger Press has also obviously done much to guide the acting.

Bell has succeeded in his aim of making the totalitarian/police-state theme of the opera more real to a modern audience. With our familiarity through film and documentary of Nazi imagery, the spectacle of Scarpia as a Nazi officer surrounded by fellow SS men is deeply troubling.

Bell has set up some amazing tableaux of uniformed officers and staff sitting at desks, processing paperwork and taking calm pleasure in their cruelties. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets are perfect, from baroque church to swastika-festooned SS headquarters to the final barbed-wire enclosed prison. The uniforms in contrast with the modesty of civilians’ dress showed the talents of costume designer Teresa Negroponte, while Nick Schlieper produces some striking effects in lighting, especially the end of Act 2 and the shock conclusion of the opera.

Orchestra and singers combine perfectly to make the performance as satisfying musically as it is dramatically. Andrea Molino conducts Orchestra Victoria with calm assurance, maintaining a steady tempo that matches the relentlessness of the tragedy and always supports rather than competing with the singers. (Credit must go too to assistant conductor Paul Fitzsimon and leader Roger Jonsson.)

And what singers. Austrian soprano Martina Serafin is a consummate Tosca, her singing gorgeously rich while her acting has a Callas dimension. Her ‘Vissi d’arte’, sung entirely while slumped despondently on the floor, is perhaps the vocal highlight of the night.

As Cavaradossi, Diego Torre may bring to mind the younger version of fellow Mexican Placido Domingo, although vocally he is really more like Pavarotti. Torre has a beautifully-sounding voice with lovely texture, rising to peak performance in his character’s farewell aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’. And his diverse acting is rivetting, across the range from placid bohemian painter to passionate revolutionary. His singing of ‘Vittoria’ when hearing the partisans have had a win (replacing Napoleon of the original) and ripping down the Nazi flag is brilliant. Serafin and Torre sing wonderfully together as well, with very fine balance.

Italian Claudio Sgura’s Scarpia is smooth and assured, with an uncluttered baritone line. His acting matches his singing in confidence, with the character’s psychopathology evident. His selfish desire for gratification is well portrayed, including via his abuse of a female staff member, while his attentions to Tosca are creepily unctuous.

A talented group of Aussie singers give admirable support to the principals, including Luke Gabbedy as a comedic sacristan (but would the pious fellow wear a beret in church?) and Steven Gallop convincing as the desperate fugitive Angelotti. Veteran Graeme Macfarlane is a solid right-hand henchman to Scarpia, and Adrian Tamburini and Tom Hamilton add to the Nazi nastiness. (Not sure about that left-hand salute though.) The effectiveness of the singers in portraying the SS officers was so good that at first I didn’t feel like applauding them, so searing were their characterisations.

Although not given a lot of vocal work, members of the chorus, prepared by Anthony Hunt assisted by Thomas Johnson, sing and play their roles very satisfactorily, as do the youngsters in the children’s chorus. As shepherd boy (here transformed into a yellow Star of David-wearing Jewish lad), Miro Lauritz sings angelically.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Fri 14th November 2014)