Review: Tosca, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011

TOSCA (Giacomo Puccini)
Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 17 July, 2011
Tosca: Angela Gheorghiu
Cavaradossi: Jonas Kaufmann
Scarpia: Bryn Terfel
Spoletta: Hubert Francis
Angelotti: Lukas Jakobski
Sagrestano: Jeremy White
Sciarrone: Zheng Zhou
Un pastore: William Payne
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Conductor: Antonio Pappano

The current revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production of Tosca for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden,  boasts a cast unrivalled anywhere in the world today.  With three principals at the height of their prospective careers it is easy to see why people queued around the block for hours to purchase tickets.  Those lucky enough to secure a seat were treated to an extraordinary night of Puccini, lead by the Royal Opera’’s Musical Director, Antonio Pappano.

Following the retirement of the ancient and much loved Zeffirelli production from the repertoire, it was probably wise to play things safe and go for a relatively traditional realisation, here designed by Paul Brown with lighting by Mark Henderson.  There are no surprises here, no sacriligeous masturbating, no serial killer-like body count, just plenty of old fashioned melodrama, the way Puccini intended.

As I mentioned before, the three main protagonists are at the height of their careers and did not disappoint.  This is a red-blooded Tosca, full of light and shade and without doubt the best performance I have heard sung in many years.  All three have sung in this production previously, though not on the same night.  This is star casting at it’s best, one of those rare nights where everything works to make a night of operatic history.

Jonas Kaufmann is the Cavaradossi of ones’ dreams.  Vocally perfect for the role, the purity of his tone and his dark timbre give the character an essential machismo, at once the revolutionary painter contrasting with the sensual lover.  His use of dynamics was incredible, breathing new life into familiar territory.  Recondita Armonia was a pure delight and Qual occhio al mondo from the love duet hair-raising in it’s seductive power, his breath control here exemplary among modern tenors.  Kaufmann is an easy going, passionate Cavaradossi rising brilliantly to the demands of the Act 2 ‘Vittoria’ and singing a devastating ‘E luce van le stelle’ in Act 3.  What I found most moving about his performance were his final moments where he realises that Scarpia has had the final laugh and he really is condemned to death, it made the scene all the more poignant.

Tosca was played magnificently by Angela Gheorghiu.  I have always had reservations about Gheorghiu, mostly as a result of her marketing as the new Callas, a facet that both her record company and the House perpetually exploit.  She is by turns utterly fascinating and absolutely frustrating.  I find her histrionics to be quite mannered, almost fussy and over-studied, especially in Act 1, but she is still an almost perfect Tosca.  Her voice has quite some beauty and she is a very intelligent artist, I just find her somewhat hollow sounding, especially in her middle range.  She seems to have compensated with a rather breathy delivery, which is very sexy ( and very Tosca), but at the same time, one longs for more heft here.  Having said that, her top notes were beautiful and she is certainly not afraid to hold on to them, which in Puccini is a good thing.  Vissi d’Arte’ was impressive and well paced, delivered in just the way to bring the house down. Physically you can find no more an alluring Tosca than Angela Gheorghiu, especially with that hair!  With her one can understand why Scarpia finds it easy to forget God. 

Speaking of Scarpia, Bryn Terfel was the epitome of the scary Police Chief here.  His entrance was as impressive as it should be and his unkempt appearance, complete with perpetual scowl, completed the image of sadistic monster.  His delivery was impeccable, drawing out every subtlety with excellent diction.  The Te Deum was appropriately overwhelming and in Act 2 he conveyed Scarpia’s lust for power and lust in general, to chilling effect.  Terfel has proved himself to be a fine actor, his use of facial expression is remarkable and he strode the stage with great self-assurance.  This must surely be the interpretation of a generation, think Tito Gobbi for the new millennium.

It seems that the chemistry of the principals inspired each other to great heights.  The torture scene of Act 2 was particularly fine in this respect, Terfel and Gheorghiu creating a strong sense of tension and underlying sexual violence.  Scarpia’s sarcastic applause of the Vissi d’Arte was a nice touch, there were many little subtleties in this Tosca that add much to the enjoyment of this opera and seemed to give the characters new life.

The set design by Paul Brown was relatively traditional but with some very nice twists.  I thought Act 1 quite unconventional in its design, particularly the circular sweep of the stairs leading into the chapel, looking more like Act 2 from Der Rosenkavalier.  This and the multi level stage worked exceptionally well, especially with the Te Deum taking place upstairs at the back.  With everyone facing the front of the stage it had maximum impact, allowing Scarpia to scheme nicely downstage alone in the chapel.

Act 2 was interesting design wise as well.  The sunken entrance provided some great visual entrance and I thought it particularly interesting to have included the statue of Archangel Michael, traditionally seen atop the Castel Sant’Angelo in Act 3,  in Scarpia’s apartment.  It gave the act an austere feeling, the viewer a sense that Scarpia is under the delusion that what goes on in these apartments is sanctioned by God.  A nice touch.

Act 3 was somewhat of a contrast to the previous two acts and I thought it didn’t work quite so well.  Stark compared to the previous acts, it was stylised in comparison.  It took me half the act to work out what it was they were standing under, the giant wing of the Archangel Michael looking very out of place, which I think we could have done without.  The vertical timbers where execution victims are tied provided a sinister reminder of the events to follow and gave the singers scenic devices with which to work with, especially during the execution of Mario Cavaradossi where Tosca mirrors the action in anticipation of his mock execution.  This was heart wrenchingly poignant, right up to the famous leap of the parapet which was handled with great style.

Brown’s costumes were a delight, with some wonderful untraditional colour choices which worked nicely, paricularly for Cavaradossi and Scarpia.  Tosca’s Act 2 costume was absolutely exquisite and the colour choice for the other acts, particularly Act 1 in its yellows, oranges and umbers alluded successfully to the Roman summer in which Tosca is set.

In the pit Antonio Pappano showed us why he is probably the leading exponent of Puccini’s music today.  He brought out so much light and shade in the music and his pacing was superb.  He is one of those rare conductors that allow his singers room to breathe and expand on top notes and expansive phrasing while yet never losing the tension or melodic flow.  The chorus and orchestra both worked hard to produce the sound required of them and succeeded brilliantly, responding beautifully to Pappano’s direction.

This production is earmarked for release on DVD.  Anyone who loves Puccini’s Tosca will relish this wonderful performance.  Gorgeously filmed and with remarkable clarity of sound it will not disappoint.  I thoroughly recommend this performance.