John Bell’s 2013 Tosca returns to Opera Australia this year with satisfying performances. His version retains its original Roman setting, but – in classic Bell style – we find ourselves in the Second World War. 1943 Fascist Italy, to be exact. Bell makes some clever tweaks to the original to bring the point home. Act 1’s chilling Te Deum has the Nazis raise swastika flags across the chapel altar, the red and steel visually slashing the soft gold and white marble. Act 2 traditionally sees Tosca placing a crucifix on Scarpia’s body, but in this rendition she covers him with a swastika banner instead. And in Act 3, the shepherd boy’s solo “Io de’ sospiri” takes on new poignance because it’s sung by a Jewish child prisoner (Aidan Carey), moments before his family is ominously herded offstage by Scarpia’s guards.

Act 1 Te Deum
© Prudence Upton

The sets are the work of Michael Scott-Mitchell, and are an outstanding strength of the production. Act 1 beautifully reproduces the Sant’Andrea della Valle basilica, evoking an Italian Baroque splendour lit by dozens of liturgical candles. Act 2 has us in Scarpia’s Nazi boardroom, made more claustrophobic by a shortened stage. The marble on the walls is now black, and hung again with blood-red swastika banners. And Act 3's Castel Sant’Angelo is a prison camp of barbed wire and miserable grey ramparts. Teresa Negroponte’s costumes fill out the look with military costumes, clerical garb, and 1940s styles.

Carmen Giannattasio (Tosca)
© Prudence Upton

Our Tosca was the Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio, making her Opera Australia debut. She sang her first Tosca to acclaim with San Francisco Opera in 2018, describing the character as “the Beyonce of [her] time”. In another pop culture reference, Giannattasio herself was nicknamed “the Lady Gaga of opera” (coined by Plácido Domingo) and it’s easy to see the life and glamour she brings to the stage. She has an obvious affinity for Puccini’s lyricism and phrasing, with a strong dramatic voice featuring an effortless top-range and lower notes put to powerful dramatic effect. Hers was a thoughtful, well-nuanced approach to the character’s dramatic arc: the flirtatious but somewhat religious diva of Act 1; we see her development from distress and vulnerability to deathly resolve in Act 2; and in Act 3, we witness her final, desperate clarity.

Diego Torre (Cavaradossi) and Carmen Giannattasio (Tosca)
© Prudence Upton

Vocally, Giannattasio was well-matched to this production’s Cavaradossi, OA favourite Diego Torre. Theirs was a complementary pairing, with a corresponding timbre and vocal strength that made their duets soar, particularly in Act 3 when singing unaccompanied. For his part, Torre was a good-natured, hapless Cavaradossi, with beautiful moments of singing – his bright, penetrating line fitting Puccini extremely well. I particularly appreciated the drama he brought to individual words. His Act 1 exclamation of “Scarpia!”, and his Act 2 cry of “Vittoria!” were short moments but imbibed with startling meaning.

Marco Vratogna seems to enjoy villainous roles (Iago in Otello is one of his signatures) and was an effective Scarpia. He claimed the stage more easily in Act 2, with a rich, complex purr to his lower range, but Act 1 would have been more menacing with greater vocal heft. Luke Gabbedy, almost unrecognisable under the Sacristan’s costume, reprised the comic role with bumbling pathos. I was particularly impressed with the vocal power and timbre of David Parkin’s Angelotti and Anthony Mackey’s Gaoler, and look forward to seeing them more in future. Graeme Macfarlane rounded out the cast as Spoletta, and Alexander Hargreaves as Sciarrone.

Marco Vratogna (Scarpia) and Graeme Macfarlane as (Spoletta)
© Prudence Upton

All in all, this was a well-performed revival, with credit due to revival director Matthew Barclay and conductor Andrea Battistoni. I note Bell’s theatrical touch is still evident throughout. Bell said he chose Fascist Italy because he wanted to recapture the shock of original audiences, so modern audiences could recognise the “everyday banality of evil… a tyrannical regime, resistance fighters hunted down, women forced to give sexual favours… these things are still happening.” While definitely true, if it’s freshness and shock that were the goals, I’m not sure the 1940s still lay claim to that title. Aside from being something of an opera cliché, lots of Bell’s work resets classics in the World Wars (my generation of Sydneysiders, I'm pretty sure, couldn’t get through high school without studying at least one of Bell’s World War Shakespeare adaptations). Without downplaying the atrocities of that period, other settings – South American drug cartels, for instance, or the unrest in Trump’s America – might be fresher and more shocking.

But let’s face it, audiences don’t always want too much topical shock. Especially now, perhaps, in the stress of recent global and local events. If you’re after a satisfying night at the opera with a well-executed production and stellar performances though, this is it.