John Bell's 5-star production of Puccini's dramatic romance returns to Opera Australia in 2017
In our 5-star review of John Bell's Tosca (from its premiere season in 2013) we wrote:
"Bell has created a striking production, transposing the action to Nazi-occupied Rome during World War 2, with three magnificent sets that take us from a church to an internment camp.
There are some stunning set-pieces; the chorus that closes the first act is a particular highlight, with the men and women of Rome, soldiers and clergy converging in the vestibule of the church in time with Puccini’s striding rhythm, in an exhilarating visual and aural crescendo.
This is just excellent stuff, with the kind of compacted, concentrated energy that one expects from the best Shakespeare. If it doesn’t make you fall in love with opera, probably nothing will."
From our interview with Sydney's favourite Shakespearen actor and director, John Bell, ahead of his first production for Opera Australia:
Composed by Puccini after his wildly popular La bohème, Tosca is a titan in the opera canon now, but it was famously divisive when it premiered in 1900, and in the years following. Even in the ’50s, musicologist Joseph Kernan famously called it a “shabby little shocker.”
Director John Bell recounts this anecdote incredulously: “I thought, ‘How can you say that?’ I suppose when it’s done in its original period – with period costumes and all that – it can come across as melodramatic. People associate that kind of costuming and that era with melodrama – and [Tosca] could swing that way.”
With this in mind, Bell wanted his Tosca to be something contemporary and real that audiences could relate to – while at the same time being operatic in scale. He settled on Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, taking the audience on a journey from an imposing cathedral interior to an internment camp that is more like Auschwitz than the original setting of Castel Sant'Angelo.
“I was thinking about the German occupation of Rome in 1943 – when the Nazis moved in and formed an alliance with the Fascists – and the story [of Tosca] fits like a glove. Then I saw Rossellini’s film Rome, Open City  – and that story was so close to Tosca that it just clinched it for me.”
Based on Victorien Sardou’s play of the same name, about a love triangle between a opera diva, a painter and a police chief, Puccini’s Tosca was his first foray into realism, rather than romance, in its depiction of violence.
“It calls for as much acting ability as you can bring to it,” says Bell. “I think audiences are wanting to see more acting applied – rather than the old ‘stand and deliver’ kind of opera…
"There’s no point in saying it has to be entirely naturalistic,” he qualifies, “because we’re standing and singing! But we can keep nudging closer and closer to reality. And because the music is so truthful and passionate, I think people get swept up by it. You kind of enjoy the fact that it’s operatic, and not documentary realism.”
See what else is in the Opera Australia 2017 season.