I’ve never been to a sing-along Sound of Music, but apparently audience etiquette requires pantomime booing of the Nazis. More than a few attendees at the opening night of Opera Australia’s new production of Tosca responded in a similar fashion at the curtain call, and it had nothing to do with a generally excellent performance. For yes, there were Nazis. In the light of recent controversies (which include the cancellation of a Nazi-themed Tannhäuser in Düsseldorf in May of this year), yet another invocation of the 20th century’s bogeymen-in-chief might sound a bit tired, almost clichéd. And yet, on this occasion it wasn’t gratuitous; rather, it was part of a clever interpretation of Puccini’s beloved opera which rendered the familiar story all the more affecting.

Directed by Australian Living Treasure John Bell (of the Bell Shakespeare theatre company), the action of the opera was brought forward from the Napoleonic era to World War II Rome. Aside from a couple of out-of-place references to Bonaparte, the basic drama of love, loyalty and betrayal transferred seamlessly into the new context. In fact, it arguably gained by the change: fascist Europe is still part of our cultural memories in a way that pre-Risorgimento Italy is not. The appearance of goons with Nazi banners in Act I induced a momentary shock, and the final tableau in this act, in which, successively, the soldiers, boy scouts, “ordinary” people and finally the coped clergy gave the fascist salute, was genuinely disturbing. In Act II, Mario’s defiance of his captors took the form of tearing down one of the Swastika decorations, and this was later used by Tosca to cover the dead Scarpia (a clever use of the “crooked cross” in place of the usual crucifix).

A special word of commendation is due to the design team headed by Michael Scott-Mitchell. The verisimilitude of the Act I set – a Baroque church interior – was simply staggering. Those for Acts II (an interior with a neoclassical feel to it à la Albert Speer) and III (the interior of a prison camp surmounted with barbed wire) were scarcely less impressive. Another inspired piece of business during the instrumental section near the start of the final act saw a number of yellow-star-wearing Jews manage to bribe their way out of the prison. There was no final salto mortale for Tosca (the wire put paid to that), but she took control of her fate, turning to face the soldiers who shot her down. The curtain fell on the sight of her dangling limply from the barbed wire. For once, we had an Opera Australia production in which there was not much blood: even Scarpia’s murder was understated, almost tasteful.

Of the principals, Yonghoon Lee as Cavaradossi demonstrated power and tenderness, especially in his top register, and both his Act I duet with Tosca and the famous “E lucevan le stelle” were highlights. In the title role, Alexia Voulgaridou was also impressive in the higher regions, and emoted satisfactorily. Unfortunately, John Wegner, in the role of Scarpia, was clearly under the weather, and was vocally subdued. Nonetheless, he managed to convey a suitable atmosphere of menace through his very stillness. Michael Honeyman, as Sciarrone, had a decided edge over his fellow Nazi officer Graeme Macfarlane as Spoletta. The young Dominic Grimshaw was a touching “Shepherd Boy”, a role reimagined as one of the waiting Jewish captives who escapes in Act III. The Sacristan, John Bolton Wood, had some nice comic business in the first act.

The orchestra under Christian Badea had several nice moments – the end of the Act I duet had the proper palm-court sweep to it, and the offstage instruments playing the cantata in Act II were well-coordinated. Perhaps it was where I was sitting, but I felt that the harp sound carried particularly well. Against these positives, there were moments where the divisi cellos didn’t always lock in during the lead-up to “E lucevan”, and the horns at the beginning of Act III didn’t have any resonance. This last wasn’t the players’ fault – the pit seems to have very little resonance, which appears to affect some instruments more than others, maybe because of where they are placed.

Having seen Verdi’s La forza del destino the previous week, I was struck at how dramatically taut Tosca is by contrast. Not only is it shorter, but the brief time-span over which the events unfold gives the drama much more momentum. The dramatic irony at the ending, where we as audience suspect what Tosca is blithely unaware of, and then her breakdown as she swiftly becomes undeceived: all this is melodramatic theatre at its best. Famously described by the musicologist Joseph Kerman as a “shabby little shocker”, the current production proves that the story still retains its power to move.