A production of Tosca is virtually guaranteed to fill an opera house, especially if the cast features the likes of Angela Gheorghiu and Bryn Terfel.
However, the presence of two operatic superstars is no guarantee of artistic excellence.
The current production of Puccini’s great melodrama was first seen at the Royal Opera in 2006, when it replaced the version by Franco Zeffirelli which had stood service for over 40 years. Producer Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown’s naturalistic approach is in keeping with the opera’s setting in the Rome of 1800.
In terms of design, however, the church interior in Act 1 suffers from a distracting profusion of vertical lines, including railings for both the upper and lower levels of the church, metal banisters on the dual stairway, a set of candelabras as well as the scaffold which Cavaradossi uses to access his painting of Mary Magdalen.
The set for Act 2, featuring Scarpia’s apartment, is by contrast magnificent, a large open room with a sense of space dominated by a towering statue of Saint Michael. Act 3 falls somewhere inbetween, uncluttered to the point of minimalism, gleaming stars and a giant wing hovering in the sky. Although the setting is very early morning and Tosca sings of the sun already rising, the sky remains resolutely dark to the end.
Dramatically, the production is not compelling. Under revival director Stephen Barlow, the placement of the principals is often clumsy and the acting is unsophisticated. Gheorghiu’s Tosca, for example, expresses her jealously in Act 1 with the petulance of a teenage girl and Terfel’s Scarpia is given too much pacing to do. Nevertheless, Terfel, who first sang Scarpia in the 2006 production, has the voice, stature and personality to bring to life a character that, with no obvious redeeming features, is in danger of being a one dimensional villain. The long hair that he wears for the role is not conducive to an aristocratic bearing, but overall his is an impressive interpretation.
There is no doubt that Gheorghiu has exactly the right look for Tosca, and her late substitution for an indisposed Deborah Voigt was a promising development. However, this performance didn’t catch her at her best, and although she recovered from an underpowered opening to deliver some impressive vocal fireworks later, this was rarely an involving performance. Symptomatic of this was her delivery the second movement aria, Vissi d’arte, which was dutiful rather than inspired.
It was left for Marcello Giordani as Cavaradossi to inject a sense of passion to the production. This he does with a performance of romantic ardour throughout and a series of thrilling top notes in Act 2. For me, his performance was the highlight of the evening.
Under Canadian conductor Jacques Lacombe, making his Royal Opera debut, the orchestral response is atmospheric, with luminous strings, sensitive woodwind, bells tolling evocatively, and canon fire subtly integrated into the overall texture. However, anyone hoping to be swept away by the intoxication of Puccini’s orchestral writing for the love duet in Act 1 or seared by the intensity of the exchanges between Tosca and Scarpia in Act 2 will be disappointed. The orchestral response at such times is disappointingly prosaic, as if Lacombe were trying not to draw attention away from the singers, but ultimately diminishing their effect.
Altogether, a rather uneven Tosca then, with many impressive features but not really satisfying on any front.
Angela Gheorghiu will sing Tosca at the performances on 11,14,16 July. Nelly Miricioiu will sing the part on 11 and 18 July.