State Opera of South Australia has mounted a vibrant new Tosca on old pre-used sets, creating a pulsing production full of life and energy. Tosca is one Giacomo Puccini’s masterpieces, full of strong drama, with a palpable atmosphere of dread, based on events set in Rome on the afternoon, evening and morning of the 17th and 18th June 1800. The church, palace and prison in which they occurred are still standing. The story they tell is timeless. The harsh, dramatic, attention-grabbing chords of stabbing trombones that open the opera still challenge us with compelling intensity. These chords symbolise, like a Wagnerian leitmotif, the nasty, hypocritical police chief, Scarpia, rotten to the core, and using ruthless means to attain his end. They are harbingers of the violent atmosphere pervading the whole opera. The opera also depicts the way events beyond her control change a petulant, jealous, self-centred young singer into a strong, passionate, forceful woman prepared to sacrifice herself for the man she loves. This Adelaide production was a celebration of all this and more.

Good opera demands the co-operation of a good, quality orchestra in the pit. This is not always a given. However State Opera has the services of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, which, over the years, has become one of the best orchestras in the world at integrating into the total opera experience. In this Tosca, under the direction of Nicholas Braithwaite, the players were at their best, their playing so crisply expressive, clear and nuanced.

Soprano Kate Ladner sang masterfully as Tosca; from her gentle coquettish manipulation of Cavaradossi in Act I at Sant’ Andrea della Valle church to their forceful final duet atop Castel Sant'Angelo while bells rang and the sky heralded the coming dawn. Ladner's rich, powerful voice conveyed enormous versatility, able to move one to tears as when she sang that final duet, or as earlier with her wistfully reflective prayer “Vissi d’arte”. 

Rosario La Spina has a voice best suited for Italian tenor roles, ensuring he was an outstanding Cavaradossi, Tosca's flamboyant lover, and friend of escaped prisoner Angelotti. Standing high on the scaffold in the church while admiring his locket portrait of Tosca, his rich, well-rounded “Recondita armonia” was heartfelt (the grumbling interruptions of John Bolton Wood's Sacristan adding flavour). However, it was his showstopping “E lucevan le stelle” from the spacious top of the castle that was most impressive – such a fine quality of voice, of control, of light and shade, of phrasing.

When in Act I feared chief of police Baron Scarpia, well played by baritone Mario Bellanova, dressed in joy-deadening black and white, stepped into the midst of cleverly choreographed and contagiously joyful choristers, it was like a heavyweight had dropped, the accompanying dread music crushing out all life. His sudden appearance, and sarcastic “Un tal baccano in chiesa!” having the desired effect. Bellanova seemed to relish the role. His greatest moments were in the second Act II Farnese Palace apartment, where he was completely in control, able to remind Cavaradossi that “tears are more appropriate in this place”, and where he could stoically sit aloof and feel empowered. However, there were times where he seemed to lose focus, his singing to lose direction. Meanwhile, I could almost see Ladner’s Tosca, squatting on the floor and aware of his superior attitude and feigned indifference, gain inner strength to plan her release, as while taking a few sips of wine at the table she palmed a knife to rid herself of Scarpia’s menace. “Only now can I forgive him” she sang as she washed his blood from her hands, then to delicate orchestration, placed candles beside his head, and departed the room to a gentle drum roll.

The Castel Sant’Angelo setting was enhanced by clever lighting from Nigel Levings, giving an impression of space and depth, with an avenging warrior angel hovering over all, dawn about to break. Ladner’s Tosca was so eager to greet Cavaradossi she rushed to embraced him ahead of the orchestra’s embrace music – O for spontaneity! – and no harm was done.

Jeremey Tatchell’s cameo portrayal of the escaped Cesare Angelotti was a gem – his authentic singing, clever acting and prisoner costume all contributing. Similarly, John Bolton Wood demonstrated his enjoyment playing the doddery sacristan with churchified gait and musical lilt. His worn baritone and La Spina’s tenor Cavaradossi blended beautifully together.

In this Tosca everything fitted together. No doubt many hours had been spent in planning and rehearsing. It was a joy to be part of an audience where it all coalesced so perfectly.