Since its première in Rome in 1900, Puccini’s political tragedy has become such a staple of the repertoire that opera goers can become blasé about the fate of Floria Tosca and her lover, Mario Cavaradossi. In the dying moments of this Opera Australia production, however, one ardently wishes that he will get to his feet this time, and that she can find a way to escape. Of course it’s a forlorn hope, but testament to the power of director John Bell’s interpretation and the outstanding cast’s passionate, finely tuned performances.

Teodor Ilincăi (Cavaradossi) and Ainhoa Arteta (Tosca) © Prudence Upton
Teodor Ilincăi (Cavaradossi) and Ainhoa Arteta (Tosca)
© Prudence Upton

Tosca traditionally unfolds in Rome amid the oppressive political climate of the early 19th century, but Bell’s production, already enjoying a second revival since its 2013 debut, seamlessly moves the action forward to the Nazi occupation of the Eternal City. This almost automatically enables contemporary audiences to grasp what is at stake; the intelligence and sensitivity of his interpretation make us feel the characters’ suffering and identify with their political motivations.

Cavaradossi’s resistance under torture is noble. The lament of the shepherd boy, here transformed into a detained Jew complete with telltale yellow star, is pure pathos. When Nazi soldiers carrying swastika flags and jackbooted officers led by Scarpia fill the church to celebrate the regime’s victory, the sense of desecration and occupation is genuinely disturbing.

Teodor Ilincăi (Cavaradossi) and  Ainhoa Arteta (Tosca) © Prudence Upton
Teodor Ilincăi (Cavaradossi) and Ainhoa Arteta (Tosca)
© Prudence Upton

The designers handsomely support Bell’s compelling realist vision. Teresa Negroponte’s costumes are authentic period recreations that immediately convey a sense of despair, romance, authority or glamour (most notably Tosca’s Act 2 gown, which sensuously clings to and drapes around Ainhoa Arteta’s figure). Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets vividly create a sense of time, place and solidity. Act 1’s church is a grand evocation of white marble, gilding and Baroque artworks, followed by the fascist monumentalism of a boardroom that’s all right angles, long lines and black marble. The final act’s prison is a grey, confined space topped with row upon row of barbed wire. Nick Schlieper’s lighting is similarly effective, accentuating moods and drawing the eye to what matters.

Ultimately what really matters is the cast, which is uniformly satisfying both vocally and theatrically. In the title role, Spanish soprano Arteta was masterful. A confident actor who easily moves from flirtation and jealousy to despair and contempt, she sang with tremendous power and control; the soaring top notes and low vibrato of “Vissi d’arte” were simultaneously thrilling and heartbreaking.

Lucio Gallo (Scarpia) and Graeme Macfarlane (Spoletta) © Prudence Upton
Lucio Gallo (Scarpia) and Graeme Macfarlane (Spoletta)
© Prudence Upton

Arteta was in every way well matched with Romanian tenor Teodor Illincai’s sweetly serious Cavaradossi. He sang with a force that made one’s ears ring, and had beautiful tone even in the upper register. Italian Lucio Gallo’s Scarpia was more understated than some. Conveying malevolence through calm authority rather than chewing up the scenery like a panto villain, his warm, confident baritone was equal to Arteta and Ilincăi’s powerful voices.

While this impressive trio of imported principals dominates, the supporting cast held their own, most notably Graeme Macfarlane as the chillingly efficient Spoletta, Luke Gabbedy’s slightly comical sacristan, and Richard Anderson, whose resonant bass set the standard early as fleeing prisoner, Angelotti. The Opera Australia Chorus and Sydney Children’s Choir had limited time to shine, but shine they did, massed to stunning effect for Act I’s grand finale, the Te Deum.

Under the baton of Christian Badea, the Opera Australia Orchestra played with consistent verve, but also deliver delightful nuance, such as plaintive bells and a haunting clarinet solo worthy of Ilincăi’s moving “E lucevan le stelle”.

Even with a commonplace cast, John Bell’s Tosca would be compelling theatre, but with singers of this calibre even the most jaded opera goer will likely feel its visceral impact.