The aftermath of an unfortunate tug of war between love and lust entwined in a city gripped by enemy occupation, Tosca’s story digs deep into the human heart. In Opera Australia's Melbourne première of a new production of Tosca by the acclaimed artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, John Bell, it's a remarkable feat that Austrian soprano Martina Serafin made it to the stage to enact her. At short notice, Serafin packed her bags and took the long haul journey from Europe to replace an indisposed Svetla Vassileva, herself the chosen lead after the controversial termination of Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri's contract earlier in the season. Excusing some dramaturgical concerns and displaying all the demands of an international career, Serafin frocked up in a breezy azure dress and delivered in a production excelling in visual, vocal and orchestral power.

Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) and Martina Serafin (Tosca) © Jeff Busby
Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) and Martina Serafin (Tosca)
© Jeff Busby

Even before her entrance, this Tosca was going to win hearts. Act I's interior of the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in Rome is a spectacular piece of scenographic realism, obliquely directed to the audience in gold and stuccoed glory, illuminated with a bright, silken light. The journey across Rome to Act II's austere renovated classicism of Scarpia's office in the Palazzo Farnese and the barbed-wire barricades atop a small section of the Castel Sant'Angelo's summit in Act III contribute striking visual poetry alongside the unfolding drama. Michael Scott-Mitchell's sets, Nick Schlieper's lighting and Teresa Negroponte's costumes of uniformed police and practical, period elegance raised the bar for the entire onstage cast. Transferred from the smaller stage of the Sydney Opera House where the production premiered last year, promises of proscenium infill panels, however, weren't apparent.

The visual realism perfectly marries with the dramatic and narrative power of Puccini's music reflecting Italian verismo and capturing the diversity of human emotion and the climate it exists in. Conducting a top, in-form Orchestra Victoria, Andrea Molino executed the musical landscape with immense beauty, bold colour and confident pacing, exposing their great strengths in Act III's extended orchestral opening as it supports the short aria of wafer-thin notes of the shepherd boy, sung sweetly by Miro Lauritz.

Bell updates Giacomo Puccini's enduring work with a vision both plausible and wretchedly frightening. Premiering in Rome in 1900 and originally set during French Napoleonic occupation in 1800, the work seamlessly reflects 1943 Fascist Italy when Nazi German forces advanced into Rome, here poisoning the stage with Nazi Reich uniformed police and their swastika flags. The unrest and brutality of war is fresh and intimidating.

Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) © Jeff Busby
Claudio Sgura (Scarpia)
© Jeff Busby

Bell crafts Puccini's enduring work with a plethora of dramatic insight. With the processional entrance of the swastika flag-bearing police in the finale to Act I's Te Deum amongst a choral gem concluding with the Reich salute, Scarpia’s abrupt stabbing by Tosca, followed by the gentle extinguishment of the desk lamps to close Act II, and Cavaradossi's death by firing squad in Act III evoking the horror of Francisco de Goya's iconic painting, The Third of May, 1808, in Madrid, Bell inserts praiseworthy attention to the grander picture.

Where greater accord within the drama might be better handled is in the characters' individual convictions and interactions. A few poignant moments are but vignettes embedded in acting lacking direction and often appearing contrived and forced.

Tosca's Act I rendezvous in the church with her lover, the restorative painter Cavaradossi, falls flat, the pair divided by too much distance without a sense of passion or match, giving performances directed to the audience in isolated stance, rarely to each other. The conundrum continues but Act III's final meeting of the two brings believabilty so much closer, just a little too late.

Vocally, Martina Serfin’s Tosca is as poised as her demeanour, pure and radiant but troubled by quickly-phrased passages. On opening night she seemed to hold back until Act II’s “Vissi d’arte”, the aria she was meant to star in – a performance ravishing enough to convert a first-time opera-goer for life. As Cavaradossi, Diego Torre sang with confidence, gusto and impressive, controlled length. In Act I’s “Recondita armonia” Torre found difficulty focussing on the conductor’s baton and rushed his way into opening night but soon settled, then took the night away with Act III’s “E lucevan le stelle” in superlative style.

Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) and Diego Torre (Cavaradossi) © Jeff Busby
Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) and Diego Torre (Cavaradossi)
© Jeff Busby

Despite Claudio Sgura rendering Scarpia more like a woody, snobbish butler than the villainous man of power he is as he bears animalistic advances on Tosca, the voice was rich, menacing and turbo-charged. Just one notch up on Act I’s finale would have kept him above the orchestra and chorus, whose short appearance was noticeably marvelled at. In lesser roles, fine performances came from Luke Gabbedy as the jovial Sacristan and Steven Gallop as the agitated escapee, Angelotti. As Scarpia’s subordinate, Spoletta, Graeme Macfarlane seemed miscast.

The big picture is there, the production is indeed astonishing, but the director’s job is not entirely complete. Turning the realism of character portrayal into “feelism” will make all the difference.

****1