When the curtain first rose on the Act I set of John Bell’s new production of Tosca, there was an audible gasp throughout the audience.
Such is the impact of Michael Scott-Mitchell’s mammoth set of white marble and towering columns which draws visual cues from Sant’Andrea della Valle, where the action is actually set. It’s richly detailed, on a massive scale and yet never feels garish and is almost uncomfortably real. This sense of truthfulness and authenticity is in every moment of this brilliantly realised Tosca.
Puccini’s action-filled melodrama centres on the relationship between opera star Tosca and painter Cavaradossi. They get tangled up in the French invasion of Rome in 1800 and both their lives are threatened when Cavaradossi helps to hide a political prisoner. Director John Bell has gently bought the action forward to Nazi-controlled Rome, infusing the story with tension and intrigue.
Bell’s direction is of a quality too rarely seen on Opera Australia stages. There’s integrity, a lightness of touch and a confidence that pervades every element of this production. Simply, he directs like a director who has nothing to prove. There are no gimmicks here, just clear storytelling that is faithful to the source material and scene work that reveals what we need to know about the characters and drives the action forward. He builds tension in every scene, to the point where audience members are on the edge of their seats, despite knowing exactly what happens next.
He benefits from performances that are as fulfilling vocally as they are dramatically. As Tosca, Alexia Voulgaridou goes from seductive to tormented and unleashes a full, gutsy tone throughout her entire range. Her ‘Vissi d’arte’ is full of despair and is a perfect example of how to deliver an aria as a dramatic piece.
Yonghoon Lee’s vocal performance is truly stunning. His musicality is first-rate and he possesses an impossibly rich and secure upper register. His Cavaradossi is cavalier and heroic and his onstage chemistry with Voulgaridou feels completely authentic.
John Wegner doesn’t deliver the kind of booming baritone you might expect from Scarpia, but he’s as menacing as you’d hope and his approach has a subtlety more in line with Bell’s production. He’s a true villain, but never becomes a cardboard cutout of the moustache-twirling variety.
The orchestra, under conductor Christian Badea is completely in synch with the onstage performances and supports the action perfectly. There are also some gorgeous, if all too brief, solos.
Everything in this Tosca has a kind of cinematic quality to it. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets and Teresa Negroponte’s costumes are so rich, you feel like you’re watching an old Hollywood movie. In the first act you feel like you’re literally staring into a glorious church, complete with marble floors and soaring ceilings. Tosca’s gown in the second act is probably the most beautiful costume in Opera Australia’s season this year and wouldn’t look out of place on any red carpet.
But the true star of this production is Bell’s direction, which serves the source material beautifully. He hasn’t felt the need to put any kind of massive personalised stamp on Puccini’s work (although a few swastikas make appearances). You hardly feel the director’s presence, but leave feeling elated and fulfilled, which means his work is actually superb. It’s a solid production that will undoubtedly be pulled out for many future Opera Australia seasons and would probably work with performances that aren’t as great as these ones. But if you want to treat yourself to the best, this production is it.