Tenor Yonghoon Lee and Alexia Voulgaridou in Tosca | Joan Sutherland Theatre

I’ll come right out and say it: as far as I’m concerned, Opera Australia would be well-advised to have John Bell direct many more operas, for never have I seen an opera with more dramatic impetus, or believability. Sure, you could argue awareness of the erstwhile classical theatre director’s tenure in this production of Puccini’s Tosca may’ve prejudiced my judgment; yet I remain certain that I would’ve been similarly impressed had I been blissfully unaware of his hand on the tiller.

When John Bell told me, in an interview with Curtain Call, that he’d determined to move the action forward from Napoleonic times to Mussolini’s heyday, despite the fact I was well-aware of the cut of the gib of the man I was speaking with, I was vaguely sceptical. After all, it’s not the first time such a thing has been done: Gale Edwards did a similar thing, in fact, with another Puccini opera earlier this year (La boheme), forfeiting the Latin Quarter of 1840s Paris for the unbridled decadence of 1930s Berlin. But, in both case, it’s proved a case of “it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it”, to paraphrase Sy & Trummy’s song from the same era. While Edwards certainly didn’t avoid addressing the scourge of fascism, it was more, perhaps, by intimation, rather than direct confrontation.

But Bell seems to have an agenda, which is to remind us, yet again, of the terror of the times. He does it so effectively, it puts to bed any notion that opera needs be secondary to the theatre “proper”. In truth, he demonstrates singers can be as much actors as actors singers. This isn’t always apparent in the genre so, as much as it salutes the singing actors, or acting singers, it goes to his capacities as director. It works as well as it does, methinks, because of Bell’s convictions: his convictions about the historical and human significance of the events he depicts; about Puccini as a composer of substance, as much as style; about the need to recapture the shock and awe the original production might’ve effected. For him, Tosca isn’t a musty melodrama, but a masterpiece. And even if it isn’t he makes it so.

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It’s not just a matter, either, of bringing the action into the recent past to make it more accessible and affecting: his further point is that tyranny isn’t behind us; we still live with it today. One doesn’t have to look so very far beyond Australian borders to mark it. It strikes me that Bell and Puccini, as unlikely as it may sound, have something fundamental in common, inasmuch as they are both hellbent on achieving a strong,emotional response from an audience; they are both warriors for theatre, deeply concerned with embedding truth and authenticity.

Bell and Puccini are as one in their discipline, vigour and sheer force, too. The director’s vision is as robust as the music that underpins it.

The nine-month Roman occupation by the Germans were times that tested the bonds of love, strength of character and resilience generally. They demanded profound sacrifice; often the greatest possible. It’s pure speculation but, just maybe, this is something JB was keen to raise as well. Noone, surely, wants themselves, let alone their loved ones to be called upon to make unreasonable sacrifices, but do we even know what it is any more? Clearly, there are many who do but, equally, many who don’t. For some of the privileged (who don’t even see themselves as such, for they’ve never known a lack of it), sacrifice might mean slashing the nail art budget, or not upgrading the Mercedes-Benz for another year.

On entering the Joan (Sutherland Theatre), we were favourably assailed by a curtain on which was reproduced the original cover of the libretto, published in 1899. On rising though, a vision infinitely more splendid: the first (of three) of Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets. His recreation of the Attavanti chapel, in the Sant Andrea della Valle church is so flawlessly realised as to be hallucinatory in its aesthetic acuteness: proportion, perspective, scale, colour and detail are indistinguishable from the actual basilica church. If you don’t believe me, go to the Sydney Opera House, then hop straight on a flight to Rome. No wonder he’s been awarded before today. And this was but the first of three. Hitler, of course, was an ardent fan of imperial Rome and a failed student of architecture. These wires crossed and resulted in a philosophy and concerted vision (or delusion) that Germany and its people could be culturally and spiritually renewed by way of its implementation. “Speerheading” the plan was one Albert Speer and Scott-Mitchell seems to have taken his cues from grand edifices like the Marble Gallery of the New Reich Chancellery and Zeppelinfield stadium in designing his set for act two, which takes us into the office of Baron Scarpia, the chief of police, who calls all the shots. Literally. It’s a space of seemingly endless proportions, designed purposefully to intimidate and overwhelm; aesthetic grandeur is merely a sidelight. And for the final act, we almost feel confined ourselves, by the high wall, watchtower and barbed wire that hems us in. Happily, Teresa Negroponte’s costumes match Scott-Mitchell’s magnificence; both represent and exemplify the pinnacle of their respective arts. And let’s not forget Nick Schlieper’s cinematic lighting.

Christian Badea is in the pit, presiding over the redoubtable Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, whose praises I’m always happy to sing. Corporately, they realise all the brazen dynamics with which Puccini punctuates his otherwise luscious, lyrical, sweeping, swooping score, with its notable lack of recitative and set-pieces.

While David Parkin resonates both vocally and theatrically as Angelotti, the haunted, hunted escapee and resistor, he’s inevitably overshadowed by the appearance of Yonghoon Lee, as Cavaradossi, a painter and his saviour, a man of principle who vows to protect and defend the wretched Angelotti, come what may. Narratively, it’s emblematic of those courageous individuals, too small in number, who’ve stood implacably against terror. Not the nebulous, fear-and-ignorance-based terror rhetoric we speak of now (which may be more akin to terror than the terror it supposedly addresses), but an in-your-face brutality to which many succumb. Bell exemplifies this chillingly: there is a culminating moment at the end of act one in which soldiers, civilians, boy scouts (tantamount to Hitler youth) and clergy raise their arms, as one, in that familiar salute to atrocity.

Lee’s lirico spinto tenor is meltingly emotive; tender and mellifluous, yet deceptively powerful, with squillo in spades. Notwithstanding being surrounded by excellent voices, his tended to call attention to itself throughout the opera; no more so than in Cavaradossi’s famous third act aria, E Lucevan Le Stelle (And The Stars Were Shining), not to mention the Recondita Armonia (Hidden Harmony) of the first act. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone touching his range, or his effortlessness right across it. His is both an irresistibly attractive and enormous instrument, that surely places him in the top echelon of tenors performing today; or yesterday, for that matter.

It was all Alexia Voulgaridou could do to hold off Lee completely stealing the show and, were it not for her almost equally sensational soprano, he might well have.  Expressive and dazzlingly clear, Voulgaridou is Tosca, a noted singer and Cavaradossi’s love interest. It’s particularly piquant for a Greek to be reprising the role Maria Callas made her own. That’s a lot to live up to and Voulgaridou does not go wanting. Theatrically, too, Voulgaridou convinces as a stubbornly courageous, defiant woman, who turns the tables on her captor and would-be assailant. She delivers Vissi D’arte as if her life truly depends on it.

The third key player in the drama is Scarpia, played with icy, calculating, Teutonic reserve by John Wegner. Unfortunately, while he, too, drew his character sharply and balefully, his baritone didn’t seem to be quite its usual, luxuriant self.

This is such an edifying production. Those who’ve been touched, however obliquely, by the horrors of Nazism are likely to be genuinely affected by it. My own father and grandparents, luckier than some in my extended family, were Holocaust survivors and I can’t pretend the faithfully portrayed obeisance afforded the swastika herein did not arouse uncomfortable feelings of sadness, to say nothing of a burning hankering for revenge. The whole proceeding is invested with poignancy and scorching details are observed, such as when Tosca lays a Reichian banner, rather than a crucifix, over Scarpia’s still warm body, after she stabs him to death. What more pointed manner to refer to the complicity of the church in Hitler’s ambitions. But perhaps the truest measure of the dramatic efficacy of Mr Bell’s production was the quotient of booing, amidst the acclamation, for the Nazis, still seen as such, and roundly despised, after the denouement. God forbid anti-Nazi sentiment ever goes out of fashion.

All in all, this is a monumental production, in every sense. I’m confident it will live long in my memory and the memories of all who see it, not to mention as a badge of honour in the OA repertoire. If it’s possible to push Puccini to new heights, John Bell has done it. It’s as if he’s weighed and laboured over every decision: every particular seems to have been carefully considered. The result raises the bar for opera, per se.

The detail: Tosca plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre until August 31. Tickets on the company website.