Joan Sutherland Theatre, August 17

Most great narrative art is based on the same premise: depicting love in a pressure-cooker. Puccini’s Tosca is one of the ultimate music-based explorations of love as passion, as jealously, as affection, as protection, as sacrifice and as unbearable loss.

John Bell makes an august debut as an opera director. The cast’s movement and acting has a fluidity throughout, and the dramatic tension is marvellously maintained, especially in the long and potentially diffused first act.

John Wegner res
John Wegner as Scarpia (centre) in Act II. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Bell’s resetting of Tosca in the Rome of World War Two works effortlessly, with none of the all-too-common feeling of a piece of theatre being shoehorned into a director’s dubious vision. In truth it has little effect on the realisation of the characters of Tosca (Cheryl Barker) or Cavaradossi (Diego Torre), but does provide a context for the evil of Scarpia (John Wegner). In Bell’s scenario Scarpia is a senior fascist army officer who is collaborating with the Nazis circa 1943. Wegner exudes a powerful presence from his the moment he appears in Act I – and that before he has even opened his mouth!. It is a taut realisation of a character whose relentless malevolence can easily make him seem like a cartoon villain.

For many lovers of Puccini’s work Tosca can be pared back to the two great tenor arias, Recondita armonia early in Act 1 and E lucevan le stelle early in Act III, and Torre delivers both with a torrent of emotional commitment and vocal force. Few would deny that he allows these cataclysmic arias to reach something like their full potential, although his voice lacks the luminosity in its upper register that separates the likes of Jussi Bjorling and Giuseppe Di Stefano from the rest.

Speaking of luminous, Cheryl Barker is a vision of loveliness surmounted by the halo that is the purity and gorgeous timbre of her voice. She achieves that necessary duality of seeming fragile even as she imbues Tosca with strength of purpose, and she certainly lights up the opera with her singing, most notably, of course, in the magnificence of her Act II aria Vissi d’arte.

Wegner’s voice was somewhat overpowered in some of his exchanges with Barker (before she dispatches him to fascist Nirvana), but his is still a striking baritone, and one that more than sustains the sense of power implicit in his physical presence.

Conductor Nicholas Milton mostly sustained an admirable balance between stage and pit, and allowed the Puccini’s agile orchestrations to shine. There were, however, some rare fluffed notes from this usually rigorous orchestra.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s Act I set is essentially an albino version of Alan Lee’s previous incarnation for Opera Australia. Thereafter the design diverges to realise Bell’s fascist scenario, the Act II set for Scarpia’s lair decorated with swastika flags, while Act III depicts a military post rather than a castle.

The ultimate change this entails is that Bell has Tosca gunned down by the Nazis rather than committing suicide, which perhaps robs the heroine of a final avowal of her strength of will. But that is not enough to compromise a sensational production; one that will be relished by all who love this crowning glory of Italian opera, and one that could win many converts.