Giacomo Puccini tends to kill off his heroines as a way of bringing his operas to a close. In Tosca he manages to kill off all four principals, heroine, heroes and rogue alike, in under a day, all meeting violent deaths. Central to Tosca – his dramatic, almost sinister opera – are the malevolent Baron Scarpia, the chief of Rome police, and Puccini’s foreboding music. Opera Australia’s production by John Bell underscores these. He follows the pattern of earlier Italian productions and set this Tosca, which has been revived by Hugh Halliday, in 1943 Fascist Rome under Nazi occupation.

Marco Vratogna (Scarpia) © Jeff Busby
Marco Vratogna (Scarpia)
© Jeff Busby

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets are impressive: a wide, realistic-looking marble and gilt church setting for Act One; a Nazi architecture-style room, with hanging red banners emblazoned with swastikas and central double doors opening on to a balcony for Act Two; then a grey concrete prison courtyard below a double-sided barbed wire rampart for Act Three. Add to this some remarkably good singers and success is inevitable.

Sacristan Luke Gabbedy brought a simple bearing to his role: a solid, convincing baritone with a no-nonsense presence, casual in his recitation of the Angelus, ready to assist whoever was in the church. Diego Torre sang the role of Cavaradossi richly and sweetly, constant in his affection for Tosca, from his first tender “Recondita armonia” as he gazed at her photo curled in his hand, through their embrace on the floor of Scarpia’s dwelling after his tortures, to his final “Amaro sol per te” in their farewell prior to his execution.

Diego Torre (Cavaradossi) and chorus members
Diego Torre (Cavaradossi) and chorus members

American Latonia Moore sang the title role with confident power, emphasising her affection for Cavaradossi, appearing to almost swoon as he flatteringly called her his idol in Act One. In Act Two she brought an end to his torture by betraying Angelotti’s whereabouts, then bargaining with the “damnable monster” Scarpia, while in Act Three she reminds Cavaradossi of “the love that found a way to save his life”. Her “Vissi d’arte”, given added prominence by Scarpia stepping out onto the balcony, leaving her alone in the large oppressive room, was sung with a smouldering passion. Again when goaded beyond her breaking point, she responded with powerful voice to Scarpia’s baiting. Moore had a clear, commanding voice, full of flavour and colour – a joy to listen to.

Latonia Moore (Tosca) © Jeff Busby
Latonia Moore (Tosca)
© Jeff Busby

Star of the night was Marco Vratogna’s Baron Scarpia (this is the only role Vratogna has sung for Opera Australia). Having been born in La Spezia, Italy, home of the Puccini Conservatory seems to have given him a feel for the master. He can both act and sing, portraying Scarpia as a thoroughly dastardly devil (made more so in this production by being cast as a ruthless Nazi sympathiser). From the moment he entered the church in Act One, accompanied by Orchestra Victoria’s threatening chords of dread, an impending cloud of disaster began to hover. In the next act, as he boasted of his relish to violently conquer women, pawed a young female soldier, showed anger that Spoletta (Benjamin Rasheed) had failed to track down Angelotti, harshly tried to intimidate Cavaradossi (“Beware! This is a place for tears!”) and aggressively bullied Tosca, this only intensified. Aided by Puccini’s powerful music and Orchestra Victoria’s skilful interpretation, the cloud of disaster inexorably descended. The threat seemed palpable as he sang, convinced of his ability to use of power to dominate others. He performed the role excellently, giving Tosca no alternative but to bow her head and consent to his request.

Diego Torre (Cavaradossi) and chorus © Jeff Busby
Diego Torre (Cavaradossi) and chorus
© Jeff Busby

By setting the opera in Nazi-occupied Rome, John Bell hopes to show the banality of evil and portray the treachery and cruelty meted out to those who dare to resist tyranny. Puccini’s music expresses these feelings. Bell’s production visualises them. It was shocking when Scarpia first entered the church; this was primarily conveyed by Puccini’s music. It was more shocking when first young, black-shirted choristers, then grey-uniformed bearers of swastika flags took over the church as the Te Deum started – tyranny had first overcome the city, now also the church! The ultimate symbol of degradation was Scarpia, having proclaimed his lust for taking Cavaradossi’s life and Tosca’s virtue, standing centre stage and joining full-voiced singing of the Te Deum. The chorus, from Opera Australia Chorus and Children’s Chorus were inspiring--no doubt chorus master Anthony Hunt’s time at Adelaide’s St Peter’s Cathedral has served him well.

This was a Tosca that spoke strongly of oppression and the power of tyranny. Its message was that terrible events can all too easily occur. It conveyed a realism that was palpable, and it left an impression that will be long-lasting.

****1