The vocal writing in Tosca is not Puccini’s finest, but the orchestration is among the composer’s most imaginative and most potent. Or at least I am now of that opinion, having heard young conductor Mikko Franck‘s superb reading of the work in his Royal Opera debut. It is a best thing in a show that, on first night, rarely hit the heights that the Royal Opera are capable of.
Franck melded the ensemble easily and authoritatively, and he found a homogenous weighting of voice and orchestra. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House have never sounded better – theirs was dramatic, highly alert and technically stupendous playing. The sound was weighty and brass infested in Puccini’s blood and guts climaxes, tender and lyrical elsewhere. The thunderous opening chords (Scarpia’s motif) were truly chilling; the Act One love duet was a masterpiece of sensitive phrasing; tempi were occasionally slow but always malleable.
Tension bubbled at the surface from first bar to last. I have never before noticed how successfully the fragmenting woodwind in Act Two mirror Tosca’s emotional collapse. And as Scarpia advanced upon his prey at the act’s conclusion, the music quivered and shook under Franck’s baton, mirroring Tosca’s confusion. Sometimes chordal ‘accompaniment’ rose above melody, but even this seemed to rack up the tension one notch further. A couple of uncertain entries (and it was no more) could not detract from the conductor’s achievement.
It was on stage that the problems started. Tosca is no ensemble piece: rather, it demands three principals who must complement each other dramatically as well as vocally. Character drama is key here. And I was not convinced by the trio on Tuesday evening. The most successful creation was Mark Delavan‘s Scarpia – a muscled, bestial bully, at his best when roaming the stage, sleeves rolled up, fists clenched and eyes leering. In Act One he could be static, but sexual arrogance and lust for blood oozed from every pore in the Torture Scene. I prefer a more dignified (and consequently ironic) approach, but this was highly effective characterisation. Delavan had to push out every word at the start, but his dramatic baritone grew in stature remarkably.
Tenor Salvatore Licitra was theatrically fine as Cavaradossi, but his voice was in sadly poor shape. The character is a Romantic, an artist and a revolutionary, and his music is in turn gloriously lyrical and thrilling impetuous. Licitra has a remarkably easy projection but, up above, his tone catches in the throat. More troubling for me, however, was the lack of shading and colouring in the voice – he sang the Act Three love duet with a timbre lacking both tenderness and warmth. More pleasingly, in the preceding aria, he did try a Franco Corelli-esque diminuendo on the word disciogliea, but it had to be quickly abandoned for want of breath.
But without a great Tosca, the show is all but sunk, and Violeta Urmana was disappointing. I didn’t even mind her shrill, often sharp, top notes – La Callas did much worse. No, it was her neutral presence that troubled. As soon as Tosca cries Mario! from offstage in Act One, she must dominate the stage. She is an actress, a passionate lover but a highly jealous lover. Urmana did kill Scarpia with great fire (her blood-curdling shouts of Muori!!! were superb), but she was not enough of the diva for my liking. Her confrontations with Scarpia should burn with something, whether it is hatred or suppressed desire, and here they did not. Tosca’s love for Mario also seemed understated. Only in her fleeting look of wide eyed terror at the opera’s conclusion did I feel that Urmana nailed the character.
Jonathan Kent‘s new-ish production is a mixed bag. The staging of Act One is impressive but messy, and the ladder interfering (the Sacristan, played here by Enrico Fissore, had to recite the Angelus while climbing down it). English Touring Opera also used a split level staging in their production last year, but it was simpler, less cluttered and, for me, more effective. Scarpia’s apartment in Act Two is suitably grotesque and the twinkling stars and misty skyline work wonders for Act Three. But while character direction in the opening two acts is fine, I couldn’t work out why the final love duet O dolci mani was sung with the characters holding hands, grinning out into the audience. It did not communicate the ardent emotion of the moment. The whole is still an impressive show, but see it for the conductor.
The production was being relayed live to numerous venues around Britain – I hope the Royal Opera House keeps these broadcasts coming. They’re a wonderful way of introducing newcomers to this music.